Helsinki, 8 June 2023: An international Antarctic meeting in Helsinki ended this week with environmental organizations expressing frustration that the outcomes do not reflect the magnitude of the climate and biodiversity crises currently facing the region. The 45th Antarctic Treaty Consultative meeting (ATCM) addressed climate issues and the protection of key species, but saw little progress towards a robust adoption of the measures needed to protect this vulnerable region. Some steps were made however, including the creation of a new Antarctic Specially Protected Area, and broad agreement on the importance of effective regulation for shipping and tourism.
“The ATCM once again missed the opportunity to act to secure Antarctica’s future, with the main output of the meeting being a declaration that does not result in any meaningful actions, and will have limited practical consequences. Given the global importance of this region, we cannot let Antarctic decision-making be held hostage to the narrow interests of just a couple of countries. We urge all Antarctic Treaty Parties to fully embrace the spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding that lies at the core of the Treaty system”, said Claire Christian, Executive Director of the Antarctic Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC).
The Helsinki Declaration on climate change was the subject of much debate during the 9 day meeting. Calls for language to reflect the urgency of action to mitigate the most serious impacts of climate change in Antarctica were blocked by a small group of countries.
“To maintain the possibility of staying below 1.5°C, CO2 emissions must be at least halved by 2030, and reduced to zero by mid-century. Committing to anything less will result in catastrophic Antarctic ice sheet loss that would erase all human settlement along many coastlines within the next few centuries, displacing hundreds of millions of people and erasing some nations from physical land existence,” said Pam Pearson, Director and Founder, International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI).
The meeting also failed one of Antarctica’s most iconic species, with one member standing in the way of a decision to designate the emperor penguin as a Specially Protected Species.
“This year we saw record-breaking low levels of Antarctic sea-ice. As global temperatures rise and sea-ice melts, emperor penguins are at risk of losing critical habitat”, said Emily Grilly, Antarctic Conservation Manager, WWF. “The scientific evidence is clear – protection measures are needed to reverse current projections that the emperor penguin will face quasi-extinction by the end of the century. Antarctic Treaty parties must take action and support the designation of the emperor penguin as a Specially Protected Species.”
Antarctic tourism continues to grow and expand rapidly, with potentially negative impacts on the environment and other protected values of Antarctica. Despite an ambitious start at this ATCM, efforts to improve the regulation of tourism largely fizzled, with some countries opposing the adoption of strong precautionary measures. Tourism is expected to remain a high priority issue at next year’s ATCM, when a special working group will consider the development of a comprehensive and consistent regulatory framework for tourism.
Environmental groups welcomed the designation of a new Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) covering approximately 285 km2 of Antarctic wilderness in the area of Dronning Maud Land, East Antarctica. This designation will protect terrestrial biodiversity including endemic invertebrates as well as snow petrels and unique ecosystems around glacial lakes. Governments also expressed willingness to address shipping by continuing efforts to coordinate the implementation of the Polar Code. This regime, adopted by the International Maritime Organization in 2017, introduced mandatory, legally-binding safety and pollution-prevention measures for cruise ships and large cargo ships in the polar regions.
“A plan of action is now essential to ensure the implementation of the highest practicable standards of ship operations are being implemented in polar seas to protect Antarctic ecosystems and wildlife” , said Sian Prior, ASOC Shipping Advisor.
Groups are looking ahead to another international meeting in Santiago, Chile later this month that will discuss plans to significantly increase protection of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean. This is an opportunity for governments to show their commitment to tackling the biodiversity and climate crises, and to meet the recently agreed international goal of protecting at least 30% of the ocean by 2030.
“Antarctica makes life on our planet possible in the first place. It cools the planet, and Antarctic ecosystems – on land and in the water – are instrumental in this. Antarctica is humanity’s heritage and it is very important that people, especially governments, understand this. They have a global obligation to take historic action by giving the green light to the designation of three large-scale marine protected areas in Antarctica,” said Sascha Müller-Kraenner, Executive Director of Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH).
Photo Credit: John Weller
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- A Policy Brief on Antarctica and ASOC’s contribution to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting
- A Network of Southern Ocean Marine Protected Areas factsheet
- Antarctic Youth Event in Helsinki
- State of the Cryosphere Report 2022
1. Claire Christian, Executive Director, Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC)
2. Andrea Kavanagh, Director, the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project
3. Meike Schützek, Consultant for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC)
4. Antje Boetius, Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI)
5. Lydie Lescarmontier, Antarctica Director, International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI)