Delegates Agree State Party Should Decide Need for Environmental Impact Assessments Yet Differ on Scope, Implementation, as Marine Biodiversity Treaty Talks Continue

Speakers at the ongoing negotiations for a new treaty on biodiversity in ocean areas beyond national jurisdiction agreed today that a State party to the instrument — rather than the proponent of a planned activity — should determine the need to conduct environmental impact assessments.

They expressed different opinions, however, on the details of carrying out such assessments — including the role that would be played by a scientific and technical body to be established through the treaty — as they scrutinized articles 30, 31 and 32 of a draft text (document A/CONF.232/2019/6).

Deliberations on these and other topics are taking place at Headquarters during the third session of the International Conference on an international legally binding instrument 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.  The session runs through 30 August.

The representative of the European Union, who favoured limiting article 30 to a general description of mandatory procedural steps, agreed with the treaty stating that a screening of activities should consider the characteristics of the area concerned, as well as where the potential effects would be felt.  However, she proposed the deletion of language that would require an assessment should a planned activity take place in, or adjacent to, an area that has been identified for its significance or vulnerability.

Her counterpart from the Solomon Islands, speaking on behalf of the Pacific small island developing States, and associating herself with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said on the other hand that her delegation supported “very much” the idea of mandatory assessments.  She added that paragraph 3 of article 30 should be phrased in a way that would require States parties which determine no need to for an assessment to explain the reasons why to the scientific and technical body to be established through the treaty.

While the representative of the Republic of Korea rejected the idea of subjecting a State party’s decision to review by a technical body, his counterpart from Norway said doing so would enhance information-sharing and transparency.  For his part, the representative of the United States emphasized that the fact that a planned activity takes place in a given area should not trigger the obligation to conduct an environmental impact assessment.  Opposing any outside oversight or review, he added that, if a State party determined no need for an assessment, then it need only publicly explain its reason why.

The representative of the Russian Federation reiterated his delegation’s opposition to the establishment of a scientific and technical body through an agreement that should be limited to setting minimal general standards, with specifics more appropriately set out as guidelines separate from the main text.

Turning to article 31 on defining the scope of environmental impact assessments — a process known as “scoping” — the representative of Guatemala, speaking on behalf of the Group of Like-Minded Latin American States, proposed language whereby assessments would cover, among other things, social, economic and cultural impacts of a planned activity, using the best available scientific information and relevant traditional knowledge.

The representative of the European Union said the bloc did not want too much detail to be included, while her counterpart from Trinidad and Tobago, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said article 31 should reflect the need to ensure that scoping is subject to public consultation.  Canada’s delegate said it should be up to a State party to define the scope of an environmental impact assessment, a position echoed by China’s speaker.

For his part, the representative of the United States said article 31 should be recast to make it clear that scoping is a necessary procedural step.  He also noted that, while social, economic and cultural impacts are not usually part of environmental impact assessments, they can and should be considered by a State party at later stages.  The representative of Singapore said the reference to social, economic and cultural impacts could be removed and “other relevant impact issues” put in its place.

Agreeing with the United States on the need to recast article 31, the representative of the Philippines added that the concerns of coastal States must be included in the scope of environmental impact assessments.  From civil society, the representative of the Natural Resources Defence Council, speaking on behalf of the High Seas Alliance, said that the obligation to define the scope of assessments must not wait for the establishment of relevant procedures at some later date, “by which time we will probably all be dead”.

Moving on to article 32, on impact assessment and evaluation, speakers debated whether a State party would, under the treaty, be able to designate a third party to conduct an assessment, or if that task should be assigned to an independent consultant appointed by a panel of experts appointed by the scientific and technical body.  The representative of Trinidad and Tobago, speaking again on behalf of CARICOM, was among several who favoured the first option, explaining that it dovetailed with the preference for global oversight.

The representative of the International Cable Protection Committee cautioned against language that would make implementation “extremely burdensome” for States parties and proponents of planned activities alike.  Citing one scenario, she said that delaying repairs to an undersea telecommunications cable for an environmental impact assessment could result in significant economic and social harm for a small island developing State that depends on just one cable to connect with the rest of the world.

Also speaking today were observers and representatives of the State of Palestine (for the “Group of 77” developing countries and China), Algeria (on behalf of the African Group), New Zealand, Eritrea, Mauritius, Canada, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Cameroon, China, Ecuador, Bangladesh and Turkey.

Representatives of the International Seabed Authority, International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition also spoke.

Established by the General Assembly through resolution 72/249, the Intergovernmental Conference hopes to finalize the text of the new treaty in the first half of 2020.

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