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Environment Minister Steffi Lemke and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (both Greens) in New York after signing the UN Convention on Marine Conservation

Photo: Michael Kappeler / dpa

The timing shows how important the issue was for the Federal Government: Germany was one of the first countries to sign the UN's international agreement on the protection of the high seas. The ceremony on the sidelines of the UN General Debate in New York was attended by Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (both Greens). After the signing, Baerbock spoke of a "glimmer of hope for the whole world". The high seas have so far been "de facto a legal vacuum," said the Foreign Minister. That's changing now."

Environment Minister Lemke spoke of a "moving day". She welcomed the fact that, for the first time, there are now rules for the protection of biodiversity in the world's oceans. "We depend on healthy oceans to combat the climate crisis, the pollution crisis and the crisis of species extinction," Lemke explained.

She described the fact that Germany was one of the first signatories and would also support the agreement financially as "important signals that we can now take action". Protected areas on the high seas must now be designated "quickly in order to place 30 percent of the world's oceans under strict protection."

Marine areas have so far been largely unregulated

For the first time, the international agreement provides for protected areas outside the exclusive economic zones of individual countries. This is of great importance because more than 60 percent of the marine areas are located outside such exclusive economic zones. So far, only about one percent of these marine areas are subject to protection rules of varying degrees. The agreement also stipulates that activities such as the extraction of mineral resources on the high seas must be preceded by an assessment of their environmental impact.

At the beginning of March, the UN member states agreed on the first international agreement on the protection of the high seas, after more than 15 years of struggle. The agreement was formally adopted in June. Russia put its rejection of parts of the agreement on record.

Already 67 signatures

The text of the contract has been ready for signature since Wednesday. On the very first day, 67 signatures were collected. According to the UN, in addition to the EU, the USA, China, Australia, Great Britain and Mexico also signed. However, each country still has to ratify the treaty as part of its own procedure. The agreement will then enter into force 120 days after this target has been reached. Lemke said on Wednesday that the German government would "do everything in its power to achieve ratification as quickly as possible."

"We are all in the same boat," EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius told AFP in New York. No country can "fight alone against the triple global crisis: biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution," he said.

Support from Hollywood

The interim head of Greenpeace International, Mads Christensen, expressed the hope that the agreement will come into force by the next UN maritime conference in France in 2025. "We have no time to lose," he warned. The international community had only seven years left to convert at least 30 percent of the oceans into protected areas. Franziska Saalmann, marine expert at Greenpeace Germany, said that by signing the UN agreement, the German government was sending "an important signal for marine conservation". The oceans must be "protected from exploitation, also because they stabilize our climate".

There is also prominent support for the agreement from Hollywood: US actress Sigourney Weaver said at the handover of the signatures that it was "a great moment to be here and to see such multilateral cooperation and so much hope". The agreement marks a shift in the way "we look at the ocean, from a big garbage dump (...) to a place we care about (...) and respect," Weaver told AFP. We gambled it away," said US actress and climate activist Jane Fonda. This agreement is the chance to make a difference."