4 October, 2016 News stories

Today is the 25th anniversary of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty which was created in order to protect the unique and pristine Antarctic landscape.

The Protocol designates Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science; and bans the commercial extraction of minerals (mining and drilling).

Signed on 4 October 1991 by 31 countries, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Environmental Protocol or Madrid Protocol) came into force in 1998, once it had been ratified by all 26 (currently 28) Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (ATCPs).

It sets a framework for the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment – ensuring that all activities in Antarctica are pre-planned and conducted so as to limit their environmental impacts.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Director, Professor Jane Francis, said: “The Environment Protocol is 25 years old today, but it has never been more important.

“Antarctica is unique in this world because it is a continent entirely for peace and science – this status is very important for science. We now know that things happen in the Polar Regions faster than elsewhere on Earth, so it is an early-warning system for changing conditions across the whole Earth.

“The Environmental Protocol protects Antarctica for humanity.  The continent may be a long way from home but what happens there matters to us all.”

Director, Professor Jane Francis talks about the importance of the Environmental Protocol

Today there are 38 Parties to the Protocol, who each send representatives to the annual meetings of the Committee for Environmental Protection, which advises the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) on Antarctic environmental issues. The Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) brings together scientists, environmental managers and policy-makers from Governments; inter-Governmental bodies; and expert non-Governmental organisations.

Minister of State Rt Hon Sir Alan Duncan MP gives a message about protecting and preserving Antarctica

The Environment Office at BAS contributes to CEP meetings, and coordinates and monitors environmental activities on BAS stations and ships, as well as at its headquarters in Cambridge to ensure minimum environmental impact.

What does the Environmental Protocol do?

The Environmental Protocol is best known for its ban on commercial mining in Antarctica. It would require a consensus of all Parties to change the mining ban.  To mark its 25th anniversary in 2016, all Parties underlined their commitment to the mining ban at the ATCM in May 2016.

Annual meetings of the CEP take place alongside the ATCM, which is hosted by the signatories in different cities around the world. This year the meeting took place in Santiago, Chile.

The Protocol has 6 annexes – 5 of which are in force. These:

  • require Environmental Impact Assessments to be developed for all activities;
  • protect Antarctic plants and animals;
  • set rules for waste disposal and management;
  • protect against marine pollution; and
  • provide for special area and heritage protection.

The sixth, the Annex on Liability for Environmental Emergencies, will come into force once all Parties have completed their domestic legislative requirements – the UK did this through the Antarctic Act 2013.

What does the Environmental Protocol mean for the UK?

  • The UK is an original signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, 1959 and has played a leading role in developing the Antarctic Treaty System ever since;
  • The UK maintains the oldest claim to Antarctica and is fully committed to ensuring that Antarctica is managed peacefully, and its unique natural environment is conserved and protected;
  • The UK has led on the designation of protected areas in Antarctica; and through the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, ensures that British Antarctic heritage (from Scott and Shackleton’s early exploration, through to the start of the UK permanent scientific presence on the Antarctic Peninsula) is effectively managed and conserved;
  • The UK led, and continues to lead, the development of Site Guidelines for Visitors, in conjunction with the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, to ensure that the most popular sites are managed in a way to underpin safe and environmentally responsible visits;
  • The UK funded the development of wildlife awareness maps to facilitate the planning of activities in the Antarctic Peninsula to minimise potential interactions with Antarctic wildlife; and has developed an Antarctic Peninsula Information Portal, bringing together environmental information for the Peninsula;
  • The UK has conducted the most inspections under the Antarctic Treaty and Environmental Protocol of any Treaty Party – reporting findings and recommendations to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. Since 2012, the UK has inspected around 80% of all the research stations on the Antarctic Peninsula, including a range of cruise ships, yachts and other installations;
  • The UK is fully up-to-date with the implementation of all Antarctic Treaty agreements – including the new annex to the Environmental Protocol on Liability for Environmental Emergencies, which was implemented through the Antarctic Act 2013.

 Historical Context

  • In 1988, the Antarctic Treaty Parties negotiated a Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities, which would have regulated commercial extractive activities in the continent. However, the Governments of several Parties indicated that they would not bring this Convention into force.  In order to ensure that there was no regulatory gap on mineral activity in Antarctica, the UK was one of the leading countries in developing a new Protocol on Environmental Protection, which was negotiated and finalised in around just 2 years.