The United Nations Law of the Sea

May 7, 2012, 7:03 pm
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The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention treaty (which came into force in 1994) introduced a number of provisions, the most significant of which established definitions of coastal boundary zones, navigation rights on the high seas, rights of islands (such as the Philippines and Indonesia), transit passage through straits (such as the Strait of Corfu), exclusive economic zones, continental shelf jurisdiction, regulations for deep seabed mining, regimes for exploitation of the seabed in international waters, protections for the marine environment, protocols for scientific research, rights of tax-free access to and from the sea for landlocked states, and procedures for settlement of disputes. [1]

The treaty defines various coastal boundary zones, measured from a carefully defined territorial sea baseline. The Law of the Sea Convention also affirms that “States (political associations with independent authority over a geographical area and its human population) have an obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment.” [2] They must take all measures possible to prevent, reduce, and control pollution that endangers rare or fragile marine ecosystems and habitats of depleted or threatened marine species. This includes control of pollution that enters waters from the shore, pipelines, cables, vessels, or atmosphere.

The Law of the Sea Convention and policies regarding global climate change intersect in several ways. The Law of the Sea Convention defines pollutants as substances introduced by humans into the seas that harm marine life and declares, “States shall adopt laws and regulations to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from or through the atmosphere.” [2] Atmospheric CO2, as it dissolves in the oceans, dramatically increases their acidity and endangers sea life. Therefore, the Law of the Sea Convention provides another argument for the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Law of the Sea Convention and global climate change also intersect at proposals to capture CO2 generated from combustion of fossil fuels at electric power plants and to store it in deep oceans. Unfortunately, storing even a small percentage of the potential CO2 emissions in the oceans would significantly alter water oxygen availability and pH. This would threaten fragile deep sea ecosystems and thereby violate the Law of the Sea Convention. Any major implementation of carbon capture and offshore storage would require amendment of this treaty. [3]

Finally, global climate change has shifted the boundaries of maritime states delineated in the Law of the Sea Convention. With rising sea levels and melting polar sea ice, additional waters have become open to navigation and to extraction of natural resources. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 11% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 25% of its undiscovered natural gas, and 17% of its undiscovered natural gas liquids lie beneath the Arctic Ocean.

[1] Division of Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (2008) Oceans and Law of the Sea. United Nations,, accessed Oct. 21, 2008.

[2] United Nations (1982) United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, New York,

[3] Flory, A. (2005) Legal Aspects of Storing CO2, International Energy Agency, Paris,

This is an excerpt from the book Global Climate Change: Convergence of Disciplines by Dr. Arnold J. Bloom and taken from UCVerse of the University of California.

©2010 Sinauer Associates and UC Regents



Bloom, A. (2012). The United Nations Law of the Sea. Retrieved from


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