Marine protection falls short of the 2020 target to safeguard 10% of the world’s oceans. A UN treaty and lessons from Antarctica could help



John B. Weller, Author provided

Natasha Blaize Gardiner, University of Canterbury and Cassandra Brooks, University of Colorado Boulder

Two-thirds of the world’s oceans fall outside national jurisdictions – they belong to no one and everyone.

These international waters, known as the high seas, harbour a plethora of natural resources and millions of unique marine species.

But they are being damaged irretrievably. Research shows unsustainable fisheries are one of the greatest threats to marine biodiversity in the high seas.

According to a 2019 global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services, 66% of the world’s oceans are experiencing detrimental and increasing cumulative impacts from human activities.

In the high seas, human activities are regulated by a patchwork of international legal agreements under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But this piecemeal approach is failing to safeguard the ecosystems we depend on.




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Empty pledges

A decade ago, world leaders updated an earlier pledge to establish a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) with a mandate to protect 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020.

But MPAs cover only 7.66% of the ocean across the globe. Most protected sites are in national waters where it’s easy to implement and manage protection under the provision of a single country.

In the more remote areas of the high seas, only 1.18% of marine ecosystems have been gifted sanctuary.

The Southern Ocean accounts for a large portion of this meagre percentage, hosting two MPAs. The South Orkney Islands southern shelf MPA covers 94,000 square kilometres, while the Ross Sea region MPA stretches across more than 2 million square kilometres, making it the largest in the world.

Weddell seal pup and mother
Currently, the world’s largest marine protected area is in the Ross Sea region off Antarctica.
Natasha Gardiner, CC BY-ND

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is responsible for this achievement. Unlike other international fisheries management bodies, the commission’s legal convention allows for the closing of marine areas for conservation purposes.

A comparable mandate for MPAs in other areas of the high seas has been nowhere in sight — until now.




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A new ocean treaty

In 2017, the UN started negotiations towards a new comprehensive international treaty for the high seas. The treaty aims to improve the conservation and sustainable use of marine organisms in areas beyond national jurisdiction. It would also implement a global legal mechanism to establish MPAs in international waters.

This innovative international agreement provides an opportunity to work across institutional boundaries towards comprehensive high seas governance and protection. It is crucial to use lessons drawn from existing high seas marine protection initiatives, such as those in the Southern Ocean, to inform the treaty’s development.

The final round of treaty negotiations is pending, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and significant detail within the treaty’s draft text remains undeveloped and open for further debate.

Lessons from Southern Ocean management

CCAMLR comprises 26 member states (including the European Union) and meets annually to make conservation-based decisions by unanimous consensus. In 2002, the commission committed to establishing a representative network of MPAs in Antarctica in alignment with globally agreed targets for the world’s oceans.

The two established MPAs in the high seas are far from an ecologically representative network of protection. In October 2020, the commission continued negotiations for three additional MPAs, which would meet the 10% target for the Southern Ocean, if agreed.

But not a single proposal was agreed. For one of the proposals, the East Antarctic MPA, this marks the eighth year of failed negotiations.

Fisheries interests from a select few nations, combined with complex geopolitics, are thwarting progress towards marine protection in the Antarctic.

Map of marine protected areas around Antarctica.
CCAMLR’s two established MPAs (in grey) are the South Orkney Islands southern shelf MPA and the Ross Sea region MPA. Three proposed MPAs (hashed) include the East Antarctic, Domain 1 and Weddell Sea proposals.
C. Brooks, CC BY-ND

CCAMLR’s progress towards its commitment for a representative MPA network may have ground to a halt, but the commission has gained invaluable knowledge about the challenges in establishing MPAs in international waters. CCAMLR has demonstrated that with an effective convention and legal framework, MPAs in the high seas are possible.

The commission understands the extent to which robust scientific information must inform MPA proposals and how to navigate inevitable trade-offs between conservation and economic interests. Such knowledge is important for the UN treaty process.




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As the high seas treaty moves closer to adoption, it stands to outpace the commission regarding progress towards improved marine conservation. Already, researchers have identified high-priority areas for protection in the high seas, including in Antarctica.

Many species cross the Southern Ocean boundary into other regions. This makes it even more important for CCAMLR to integrate its management across regional fisheries organisations – and the new treaty could facilitate this engagement.

But the window of time is closing with only one round of negotiation left for the UN treaty. Research tells us Antarctic decision-makers need to use the opportunity to ensure the treaty supports marine protection commitments.

Stronger Antarctic leadership is urgently needed to safeguard the Southern Ocean — and beyond.The Conversation

Natasha Blaize Gardiner, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury and Cassandra Brooks, Assistant Professor Environmental Studies, University of Colorado Boulder

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We need a legally binding treaty to make plastic pollution history



File 20190314 28496 1l9vu3m.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The world urgently needs to move past plastic.
Veronika Meduna

Trisia Farrelly, Massey University

A powerful marriage between the fossil fuel and plastic industries threatens to exacerbate the global plastic pollution crisis. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) estimates the next five years will see a 33-36% surge in global plastics production.

This will undermine all current efforts to manage plastic waste. It is time to stop trying (and failing) to bail out the bathtub. Instead, we need to turn off the tap.




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The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) has recognised plastic pollution as a “rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response”. An expert group formed last year proposed an international treaty on plastic pollution as the most effective response.

Together with Giulia Carlini, at CIEL, I was part of a 30-strong group of non-governmental organisations within this expert group attending the UNEA summit this week to discuss how we can start making plastic pollution history.

Unfortunately, despite strong statements from developing countries, including the Pacific Island states, a small group of countries stalled negotiations. This effectively turns back the clock on ambitious global action, and leaves us more desperate than ever for a real solution to our plastic problem.

Why we need a treaty

The first step is to reject the many false solutions that pop up in our news feeds.

Recycling is one of those false solutions. The scale of plastic production is too big for recycling alone. Of all the plastics produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% have been recycled. This figure is set to plummet as China and a growing number of developing countries are rejecting plastic waste from Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world.

China had been a major destination for Australia and New Zealand’s recyclable waste. China’s shutdown meant Australia lost the market for a third of its plastic waste. It also left New Zealand with 400 tonnes of stockpiled plastic waste last year.

With limited domestic recycling facilities, Australia and New Zealand are seeking new markets. Last year, New Zealand sent about 250,000 tonnes of plastic to landfill, and a further 6,300 tonnes to Malaysia for recycling. But now Malaysia is also rejecting other countries’ hazardous plastic waste.

Sending our platic to Asia is not a solution.
EPA/Diego Azubel, CC BY-SA

Even if we manage to find new plastic recycling markets, there is another problem. Recycling is not as safe as you might think. Flame retardants and other toxins are added to many plastics, and these compounds find a second life when plastics are recycled into new products, including children’s toys.

Plastic-to-energy is a false solution

What about burning plastic waste to generate energy? Think again. Incineration is expensive, can take decades for investors to break even. It is the opposite of a “zero waste” approach and locks countries into a perpetual cycle of producing and importing waste to “feed the beast”. And incineration leaves a legacy of contaminated air, soil, and water.

Producing lower-grade materials from plastic waste (such as roads, fenceposts and park benches) is not the solution either. No matter where we put it, plastic doesn’t go away. It just breaks into ever smaller pieces with a greater potential for harm in air, water, soil and marine and freshwater ecosystems.

This is why researchers are paying more attention to the less visible hazards posed when micro (less than 5mm long) and nano (less than 100 nanometres long) sized plastics carry pathogens, invasive species and persistent organic pollutants. They have found that plastics can emit methane contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Tyres wear down into microplastics which find their way into the ocean. When plastics break down to nanoparticles, they are small enough to pass through cell walls. Our clothes release plastic microfibres into water from washing machines.

Plastic is truly global

Plastic pollution moves readily around the globe. It travels through trade, on winds, river and tidal flows, and in the guts of migrating birds and mammals. We don’t always know which toxic chemicals are in them, nor their recycled content. Plastic pollution can end up thousands of kilometres from the source.

This makes plastic pollution a matter of international concern. It cannot be solved solely within national borders or regions. A global, legally binding treaty with clear targets and standards is the real game-changer we urgently need.

The NGO component of UNEA’s expert group recognised an international treaty as the most effective response. The proposed treaty has the potential to capture the full life cycle of plastics by focusing on prevention, right at the top of the waste hierarchy.

The Zero Waste hierarchy.
Zero Waste Europe

These solutions could include restricting the volume of new or “virgin” plastics in products, banning avoidable plastics (such as single-use plastic bags and straws), and curbing the use of toxic additives.




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More than 90 civil society organisations around the world and a growing number of countries have indicated early support for a treaty. Australia and New Zealand have not.The Conversation

Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why stop at plastic bags and straws? The case for a global treaty banning most single-use plastics



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Joyce Njeri, 8, walks amidst garbage and plastic bags in the Dandora slum of Nairobi, Kenya.
AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File

Anastasia Telesetsky, University of Idaho

Single-use plastics are a blessing and a curse. They have fueled a revolution in commercial and consumer convenience and improved hygiene standards, but also have saturated the world’s coastlines and clogged landfills. By one estimate 79 percent of all plastic ever produced is now in a dump, a landfill or the environment, and only 9 percent has been recycled.

This growing legacy poses real risks. Plastic packaging is clogging city sewer systems, leading to flooding. Abandoned plastic goods create breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and can leach toxic additives such as styrene and benzene as they decompose. Single-use plastics are killing birds and harming marine life.

I study international environmental law with a focus on marine ecosystems. In my view, land-based pollution from single-use plastics is a slow-onset disaster that demands a global response.

One attractive strategy is pursuing a legally binding phase-out of most single-use plastics at the global level. I believe this approach makes sense because it would build on current national and municipal efforts to eliminate single-use packaging, and would create opportunities for new small and medium-sized businesses to develop more benign substitutes.

Plastic bag litter along the Jukskei River, Johannesburg, South Africa.
NJR ZA/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Single-use plastic bans

About 112 countries, states and cities around the world have already imposed bans on various single-use plastic goods. Of these measures, 57 are national and 25 are in Africa. And the list of these restrictions continues to grow.

Most of these bans target thin single-use plastic carrier bags or imports of non-biodegradable bags. Some, such as the one in Antigua-Barbuda, include other single-use or problematic items, such as foam coolers and plastic utensils. A few measures – notably, Kenya’s plastic bag law – impose stiff punishments on violators, including jail time and fines of up to US$38,000.

Groups of states are starting to enact regional policies. The East African Legislative Assembly has passed a bill to ban the manufacture, sale, import and use of certain plastic bags across its six member states, with a combined population of approximately 186 million people. And in October 2018 the European Union Parliament approved a ban on a number of single-use plastic items by 2021, along with a requirement to reduce plastic in food packaging by 25 percent by 2025 and cut plastic content in cigarette filters 80 percent by 2030.

Most of these bans are quite new or still being implemented, so there is limited research on how well they work. However, researchers at the United Nations who have reviewed 60 “national bans and levies” estimate that 30 percent of these measures have reduced consumption of plastics.

Plastics manufacturers contend that better recycling is the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact of their products. But many factors make it hard to recycle plastic, from its physical characteristics to insufficient market demand for many types of recycled plastics. In many instances, single-use plastics can only be recycled, optimistically, 10 times before their fibers become too short to be reprocessed.

Estimated number of new regulations on single-use plastics entering into force at the national level worldwide.
UNEP, CC BY

Lessons from other global bans

Several global bans and product phase-outs offer lessons for a treaty banning single-use plastic goods. The most successful case is the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This treaty phased out production and use of chlorofluorocarbons in a variety of products, including refrigerators and spray cans, after they were shown to harm Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Today scientists predict that stratospheric ozone concentrations will rebound to 1980 levels by the middle of this century. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Montreal Protocol has prevented millions of cases of skin cancer and cataracts from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In 2016 nations adopted the Kigali Amendment, which will phase out production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, another class of ozone-depleting chemicals.

Why has the Montreal Protocol worked so well? One key factor is that every nation in the world has joined it. They did so because alternative materials were available to substitute for chlorofluorocarbons. The treaty also provided financial support to countries that needed help transitioning away from the banned substances.

Sir David Attenborough narrates the extraordinary history of the Montreal Protocol.

Where countries trying to reduce use of these chemicals fell short of their goals, the Protocol provided institutional support rather than punishing them. But it also included the option to impose trade sanctions on nations that refused to cooperate.

Another pact, the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, banned or severely limited production and use of certain chemicals that threatened human and environmental health, including specific insecticides and industrial chemicals. Today 182 nations have signed the treaty. Concentrations of several dangerous POPs in the Arctic, where global air and water currents tend to concentrate them, have declined.

Nations have added new chemicals to the list and created “elimination networks” to help members phase out use of dangerous materials such as PCBs. And producers of goods such as semiconductors and carpets that use listed chemicals are working to develop new, safer processes.

Even though the United States has not signed the Stockholm Convention, U.S. companies have largely eliminated production of the chemicals that the treaty regulates. This shows that setting a global standard may encourage nations to conform in order to maintain access to global markets.

Other international bans have been less successful. In 1989, seeking to reduce the slaughter of elephants for their tusks, parties to the Convention in Trade of Endangered Species banned ivory sales by ending trade in African elephant parts. Initially demand for ivory fell, but in 1999 and 2008 treaty states allowed African nations to sell ivory stockpiles to Japan and China, ostensibly to fund conservation. These two sales reignited global demand for ivory and created unregulated domestic markets that stimulated high levels of poaching.

Malaysian customs officials display smuggled tusks seized at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. Demand for ivory continues to fuel poaching and illegal trade despite an international ban on sales of elephant parts.
AP Photo/Vincent Thian

An opportunity to lead

What lessons do these treaties offer for curbing plastic pollution? The Montreal Protocol shows that bans can work where substitute products are available, but require reliable monitoring and the threat of sanctions to deter cheating. The Stockholm Convention suggests that industries will innovate to meet global production challenges. And struggles to curb the ivory trade offer a cautionary message about allowing exceptions to global bans.

I believe the rapid spread of single-use plastic bans shows that enough political support exists to launch negotiations toward a global treaty. Emerging economies such as Kenya that are aggressively tackling the problem are especially well placed to take a lead at the U.N. General Assembly in calling for talks on stemming the tide of plastic pollution.The Conversation

Anastasia Telesetsky, Professor of International Environmental Law , University of Idaho

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.