Adrift: Green movement turns blue | Vanisha H. Sukdeo and Benjamin J. Richardson

By Vanisha H. Sukdeo and Benjamin J. Richardson

Law360 Canada (May 1, 2023, 9:56 AM EDT) --
Vanisha H. Sukdeo
Benjamin J. Richardson
Benjamin J. Richardson
The environmental movement, often termed “the green movement” and politically represented by “green” parties, has traditionally focused on land conservation, protection and restoration. Many environmental organizations from Sierra Club to the Nature Conservancy focus on the protection of terra firma.

A groundbreaking development from the United Nations is now broadening the focus from the planet’s green land to its blue oceans. The newly drafted “High Seas Treaty,” otherwise known as the agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, aims to expand protection of global biodiversity to marine life impacted by myriad threats from overfishing to pollution. The green movement must embrace this new “blue movement” in order to forge ahead, and it should now be thought of as a turquoise movement that combines both in a way that recognizes the interconnections between the oceans, occupying about 71 per cent of the planet’s surface, and the land areas.

Has the focus been on green landmasses because humans live on land and not in the ocean? Does this bias also owe to the sensory bias of people towards what they can observe in their own environment, on land, and not that in the deep oceans? Existing conservation efforts for any wildlife, on land or water, have also been skewed: research studies have shown that humans care more about cute and cuddly animals like panda bears and whales, so there is less money invested in preserving the ugly or the scary such as wolves and sharks.

The planet’s cumulative environmental losses are also mounting, so no longer is it sufficient to simply protect what exists but rather we must restore what has been degraded. The rewilding movement is helping to return land to nature before human cultivation, such as the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) which “connects and protects habitat from Yellowstone to Yukon so people and nature can thrive.” But relatively little has been done to rewild the oceans, to reserve the many years of overpollution and overharvesting.

The UN’s new negotiated agreement is ambitious in its recognition of the multiple dimensions of adversity facing marine life that must be tackled by governments including Canada: “[r]ecognizing the need to address, in a coherent and cooperative manner, biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystems of the ocean, due to, in particular, climate change impacts on marine ecosystems, such as warming and ocean deoxygenation, as well as ocean acidification, pollution, including plastic pollution, and unsustainable use …” The key goal of the High Seas Treaty is to safeguard 30 per cent of the high seas as protected areas by 2023, up from 1.2 per cent presently, and ensuring 30 per cent of degraded areas are restored by 2030.

The legal challenge here is how to create effective governance mechanisms to implement this agenda in marine waters beyond national jurisdiction. Many previous international efforts to protect the marine environment have failed, notably the feeble fisheries management agreements. Whilst Canada has sovereign control of the seventh-largest marine waters of any nation, at 5.6 million square kilometres, its own efforts will be undermined if other nations and activities on the high seas fail to respect the goals of the UN’s agreement. 

The intention is that joint efforts are needed to protect the blue oceans, but their protection must be integrated with conservation and restoration efforts on land, as the green and blue do not exist separately. They are deeply interconnected, such as in how the majority of marine plastic waste comes from the rivers emptying into the seas or how acidification of the oceans rises from the fossil fuel emissions of the factories, cars and other infrastructure on land. Hopefully, this extraordinary UN initiative will be effectively integrated with other existing international and national environmental laws to create a turquoise movement of lasting change.

Vanisha H. Sukdeo, BA, LL.B., LL.M., Ph.D. is a lawyer and adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. Her fourth book titled Mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence: From Legal Custom to Lawful Concern was published by LexisNexis in February 2023. Benjamin J. Richardson is a Professor of Environmental Law at the University of Tasmania, and formerly Canada Research Chair in Environmental Law at the University of British Columbia.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice. 

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