Tuesday 4 October was 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, 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.”
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
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.
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.