On the 4th March 2023, late at night, weary delegates from 193 UN member states gathered in New York rejoiced. They had just agreed a landmark deal to protect 30% of international waters by 2030. This would be through Marine Protected Areas. This video looks at how the High Seas Treaty, which must now be ratified, will be instrumental in saving our planet’s biodiversity, how economics explains its necessity and why conservatism is a force for good. 

Our ocean’s marine life has been greatly affected by human activity. Overfishing drives species to the brink. Deep sea mining destroys their habitats. Cargo ship traffic kills many large marine animals. An incredible 10% of marine plants and animals are at risk of extinction. And things are getting worse, not better. The international community has recognised this is unsustainable for decades, yet conservation efforts have mostly failed. The UN formed an ad hoc working group on ocean biodiversity in 2004 but Resolution 69/292 which called for a legally-binding oceans treaty was only passed in 2015. By 2020 only 1.2% of international waters were in Marine Protected Areas. COP15, held in Montreal in December 2022 was a breakthrough since 196 nations agreed to protect 30% of the planet’s surface by 2030 (currently only 17% of land and 8% of marine areas are protected.) The UN High Seas Treaty reaffirms the oceans aspect of COP15, as well as organizing marine genetic research and requiring environmental assessments for deep sea activities. 

The UK Conservative government is a leading supporter of the Treaty, and should be praised for its dedication to making it more stringent. The UK also supports developing countries to carry out marine science through the £500 million Blue Planet Fund and we are the chair of the Global Ocean Alliance, which has 73 member states. In comparison with countries like China and the USA, we are significantly more active on saving the oceans. The UK should continue to be a champion of ocean health and not listen to naysayers like Nigel Farage. 

We will now turn to the economics of this. Conservation efforts are often painted as somehow being anti-capitalist or anti-free-market when, properly understood through economics, they in fact are essential for the long term survival of the free market. The Theory of Externalities was developed by the celebrated British economist Arthur Cecil Pigou (1877-1959) in his 1920 book The Economics of Welfare. He explained an externality is where a third party is affected by a transaction, an act of buying and selling. This can be negative or positive. Crucially, the interests of the parties to the transaction may be served by it, but the interests of society as a whole suffer from it. This has a direct bearing on protecting our environment, since it is often profitable to exploit and degrade it for private gain, but public loss. The failure of marine conservation is therefore a market failure, which needs strong governmental and intergovernmental action to remediate. For example, a positive externality is fishing invasive species and selling them to consumers as this allows native ecosystems to recover, benefitting other fishermen. On the other hand, a negative externality would be a steelworks, which produces thousands of tonnes of CO2, selling to manufacturers. This CO2 traps solar radiation, creating a greenhouse effect that overheats lakes and rivers, causing mass fish-die offs, harming fishermen’s livelihoods, food availability and the biodiversity that all humans wish to keep. The steelworks operations, as they are, are a big net negative to humanity, especially when all the other runaway effects of climate change are considered like melting ice caps. Pigou suggested taxing negative externalities and subsidizing positive ones to have a long term efficient economy. 

William Nordhaus (b. 1941) an American economist, deals directly with climate-change externalities in his 2018 paper Climate change: The Ultimate Challenge for Economics. Nordhaus explains the concept of free-riding as a massive obstacle to lowering emissions. He states this is where there are:  

Nationalist or non-cooperative policies that seek to maximize the interests of a single country at the expense of other countries. 

He illustrates this with an example 

Suppose that when country A spends $100 on abatement, global damages decline by $200. However, country A might get only $20 of the benefits, so it would tend to decline the responsibility. 

His solution is to adopt carbon taxes in all countries, as a form of Pigovian tax, since this will disincentivise emissions-heavy activities, and correct the externality. 

Conservatism too is often wrongly portrayed nowadays as weak on wildlife conservation. It is true, American and Australian conservatives like Donald Trump and Scott Morrison performed badly on this, and the climate in general. But European and UK conservatives are generally better. This is because we recognise conservation must be at the heart of any conservatism. Conservatism at its very core aims to conserve the best parts of our country, which includes our diverse natural wildlife. This applies as much to marine fauna, like the swift salmon of the river Tay, as to larger, more relatable mammals like the majestic deers of Richmond Park. 

Conservation is also about taking a long term view of prosperity, rather than a selfish, short term one. Again this chimes with the conservative ideal of maintaining our systems rather than the leftist penchant for launching grand plans which invariably have disastrous side-effects. Again UK conservatives naturally do, and should, view the nation and its resources as a plant to be gently nurtured, and not a machine to be worked until it breaks. Margaret Thatcher in 1988 summed up this point succinctly “

“It’s we Conservatives who are not merely friends of the Earth – we are its guardians and trustees for generations to come. The core of Tory philosophy and for the case for protecting the environment are the same. No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease.”  

Today the tradition of green conservatism continues with such groups as Bright Blue and publications like ‘Green conservatism: protecting the environment through open markets’.  Prominent Conservatives like peer Lord Howard of Lympne support it, not to mention Rishi Sunak (who sensibly abandoned fracking). Let us hope the movement grows still further. 

In conclusion, the UN High Seas Treaty will help save our ocean’s biodiversity through its 30 by 30 legally binding pledge which curbs the negative Pigovian externalities of overfishing, deep sea mining and cargo ship collisions by establishing Marine Protected Areas. The fact that the Treaty was championed by the UK Conservative government also reflects the importance that conservatism here places on conservation. This is because protecting and nurturing the best parts of our nation has always been a priority, which has given rise to a more formal environmentalism since Margaret Thatcher. Furthermore, Nordhaus points out that the market failure of human overexploitation of the oceans and climate change in general is compounded by free-riding which is a failure of individual governments, necessitating strong international agreements, like the High Seas Treaty, between as many nations as possible. Only thus, can our youth and those yet unborn continue to enjoy the benefits of the global, prosperous order we have created.