Global ocean governance in the Anthropocene: from extractive imaginaries to planetary boundaries?


As with other fields of international law addressing human-nature relations, the Anthropocene invites the reappraisal and reimagining of the law of the sea, the primary normative framework through which states regulate access to, and the use of, the global ocean. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) effected a major shift in global ocean governance towards a public order of the seas. However, the law of the sea remains substantially tethered to a Holocene conception of the ocean as a stable environmental domain of extractive exploitation and jurisdictional demarcation. This is illustrated by the confined scope of negotiations on a new implementing agreement under UNCLOS on the conservation and use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. Additionally, there has been limited acknowledgment of the multiple sites at which ocean governance in the Anthropocene takes place, in particular the central role of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It is contended that one way forward for addressing both these conceptual constraints and the UNCLOS and UNFCCC regime coordination challenges is the adoption of global ocean governance goals informed by the ‘Planetary Boundaries’ framework.

Policy Implications

  • There is limited acknowledgment within global governance regimes that the global ocean is undergoing rapid transformation in the Anthropocene as a result of climate change and ocean acidification.
  • The contemporary framework for global ocean governance remains strongly influenced by a conception of the ocean as a domain primarily for resource extraction.
  • Planetary-scale change to the global ocean calls into question the role and efficacy of existing ocean governance norms and institutions.
  • Governments and civil society actors seeking to advance effective ocean management approaches in the Anthropocene need to utilise the multiple forums in which global ocean governance takes place, including the climate treaty regime.
  • The Planetary Boundaries approach offers a potential way forward for improving the coordination between ocean-relevant governance regimes, and for providing global policy goals for ocean protection.

Stephens T., 2022. Global ocean governance in the Anthropocene: from extractive imaginaries to planetary boundaries?. Global Policy 13(Suppl. 3): 76– 85. Article.

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