By Holly Niner, Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster, Valentina Germani, Aurélie Spadone, Sebastian Hennige and Kristina Beck

As part of the COP27 Virtual Ocean Pavilion, the One Ocean Hub coordinated an event on 16 November 2022, on the interlinkages between ecosystem services, climate change and the governance of these elements in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ).

Watch the recording here.


Areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) comprise the high seas and the Area (the deep seabed)  (Art 1, para 4, Draft Text of the Internationally Legally Binding Instrument (ILBI): UNGA A/CONF.232/2022/5). The high seas cover 40 per cent of the Earth’s surface, and account for 64 per cent of the surface of the ocean and nearly 95 per cent of its volume.

Despite their remoteness and the fact that little is known about the ABNJ’s ecosystems and biodiversity (Mora et. al, 2011), humanity – and perhaps disproportionately more in the Global South (Popova, 2019) – is dependent on the ecosystem services arising from the healthy functioning of these expansive ocean regions (Thurber et al., 2014). Ecosystem services are the benefits that people accrue from the environment and arise from innumerable biogeochemical interactions occurring at all temporal and spatial scales. While there is still much to be learnt, ABNJ host a major proportion of the world’s biodiversity, valued for its contribution to ecosystem services, including that of climate regulation. Biodiversity found in these areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) can act as an insurance policy against ecosystem service loss driven by climatic changes, imparting resilience that can allow the system to adapt. However, biodiversity is not immune to the pressures of climate change, and its protection requires ‘climate responsive’ governance of ABNJ to prevent its degradation.

While the importance of the ocean for critical ecosystem services is acknowledged alongside concerns of the threats posed to ecosystem services by climate change (Smale et. al., 2019; Scholes, 2016; Weiskopf et al., 2020; Weiskopf et al., 2021)the governance of ‘climate’ and ‘ocean ecosystem services’ is often considered separately. During the One Ocean Hub-sponsored Event on the CoP 27 Virtual Ocean Pavilion, a Panel comprising four speakers considered this gap by examining varied and disparate pieces of this complex yet important topic.

BBNJ – An Option to Align Biodiversity and Climate Governance?

Valentina Germani of the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (UNDOALOS) presented an overview of the ongoing negotiating process at the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on BBNJ. She explained that the BBNJ timeline began as early as 2004, because of an increasing recognition of the need to further elaborate the regime for the conservation and sustainable use of BBNJ under the 1983 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Valentina then noted that there were important linkages between the August 22 Further Revised Text of the ILBI for ABNJ and climate governance under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) regime, including:

  • the draft Preamble, which emphasizes 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, …”
  • Draft Art 1 definition of “cumulative impacts” as including climate change and ocean acidification
  • references to building ecosystem resilience to the adverse effects of climate change and ocean acidification and restoring ecosystem integrity (draft Arts 5, 14)
  • consideration of climate change amongst the indicative criteria for the identification of area-based management tools (ABMTs), including marine protected areas (MPAs)                    (draft Annex I).

In concluding, Valentina underscored that these considerations are still under negotiation, so a clearer picture of the climate-ABNJ nexus will emerge after the resumption of the Fifth  Session of the IGC, which is anticipated   for early 2023 when Parties are expected to finalize and adopt Agreement.

Visualisation Tool to Bridge the Gap – MAPMAKER

Ecosystem services provided by marine plankton are incredibly important as plankton (i) provide the initial energy supply for all components of the ecosystem and (ii) help regulate the Earth’s climate. A large part of these functions take place in ABNJ.

The governance of marine ecosystem services including those of ABNJ is often attributed to limited abilities to pinpoint and protect the exact relationships that deliver ecosystem services and also constrained knowledge of how to quantify their ‘value’ or contribution to society. As described by Aurélie Spadone of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), this gap is evidenced by the omission of plankton diversity, changes in which are suspected to affect the biological pump, from global assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Dr. Spadone then introduced an online visualisation tool (MAPMAKER – Marine Plankton Diversity Bioindicator Scenarios for Policy Makers) created to bridge the science-policy gap, by clearly showing how plankton communities respond to various climate change projections. This visualisation assists policy makers understand the potential for marine plankton diversity changes with future climate change and explore the consequences of this for marine ecosystem service provision.

Human Rights as a Driver for Integration of the Ocean Beyond National Jurisdiction into Climate Governance

Alana Lancaster of the University of West Indies Cave Hill Campus explained that, while  the connections between environmental rights and human rights are progressively being recognised and expanded (for example in the recent adoption in July 2022 of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/Res/76/300 on the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment), there is a clear gap of understanding in how human rights might apply to marine contexts (Barnes, 2017).

One Ocean Hub researchers are illustrating that human rights apply to the ocean as they do on land. Thus far, our research has proven that there are inextricable links between human rights, including children’s rights (Sweeny and Morgera, 2021), across the gamut of marine spaces including the EEZ (Lennan and Morgera, 2022; Lennan, 2022), the Area (Hamley, 2022; Morgera and Lilly, 2022); and consequently, to biodiversity and ABNJ (Lancaster, 2023a in process). In addition, the application of human rights to the ocean-climate nexus is being examined (as part of a Hub-led Special Issue edited by Lennan, Morgera and Kolovesi, 2023 forthcoming), especially in regard to children and other [minority] groups. Additionally, the Hub’s research has underscored the importance of fully understanding the impacts of climate change in ABNJ, including ocean warming, heat waves, deoxygenation and acidification, on the human rights of key users of the oceans, such as small-scale fishing (Nakamura,2022; One Ocean Hub, 2022). The diverse consequences on small-scale fisheries, for example, has impacted the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, and also affects children and future generations by diminishing their health, livelihoods, rights to culture and family (see HRC Decision on the Torres Strait Islanders) and causing displacement, climate migration and refugeeism (see HRC Decision in Teitiota v New Zealand). This has amplified the voices and participation of ocean, climate and environmental defenders who work tirelessly to protect the space (Bennett et. al., 2022 a; b; Lancaster 2023b forthcoming).

While there is no express mention of ‘human rights’ or ‘relevant international human rights legal instruments and/or laws’ in the latest negotiating text on BBNJ, Alana identified twenty-four instances of references to ‘the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities’ in the draft text. Most of these references are unbracketed, which provides optimism for utilising the principles in international instruments on indigenous peoples’ human-rights within the ecosystem approach to ABNJ (See Alana Malinde S.N. Lancaster, Human Rights and Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction: A Necessary, Yet Nebulous Concept? 2023a in process; Morgera and Nakamura, 2022).  

The Knowns and Unknowns of BBNJ

Sebastian Hennige and Kristina Beck of the University of Edinburgh took a detailed look at exactly how climate change is affecting marine biodiversity, with a focus on cold-water corals that are often associated with seamounts and ridges in ABNJ. They explained that at the moment, it is known that both live and dead corals are important for biodiversity and that there are multiple pathways through which climate change threatens their ability to support biodiversity. With acidification – one of the major impacts of climate change on ABNJ – likely to affect the majority of cold-water coral structures (both dead and alive) over the coming decades, it is helpful to understand how multiple stressors are acting to reduce biodiversity.

Important gaps in knowledge relate to how quickly dead coral structures will degrade, how associated declines in biodiversity will occur, and also the locations of cold-water coral reefs, particularly in remote areas of the global ocean such as ABNJ. Addressing these gaps and integrating with projections of climate and biodiversity loss across all regions of the ocean should support understanding of how ecosystem services may be affected.


The panel showed that while progress is being made both in scientific and legal understanding of the connections between people and the ocean, extensive gaps remain, and targeted efforts will be needed to bridge these. Perhaps what comes across most clearly is that there is a strong demand for the demonstration of impacts to push the integration of science and risk into decision-making. However, whilst progress is being made to protect BBNJ, and the critical role it plays in climate resilience, conversations of the ocean’s (and possibly BBNJ’s) potential role in ocean carbon dioxide removal and other technological solutions, highlights the pace at which action is needed to ensure that critical human rights of current and future generations are not compromised.