The UK's leading role in protecting the Antarctic

Speech by the Minister for Polar Regions, Sir Alan Duncan, at the Polar APPG

HMS Protector

Your Serene Highness, Lords, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. I’m delighted to be here – thank you for inviting me, and many thanks to the APPG for a series of excellent events over the last 6 months highlighting the Polar Regions.

This country’s long and proud history in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean goes back to 1774, when Captain Cook sailed as far as 71 degrees South but, unfortunately, did not sight land. But it took until 1820 until the little known, perhaps he should be known better, Royal Navy Captain Edward Bransfield eventually discovered the continent.

Of course everyone knows about the expeditions of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration – to this day, names like Scott and Shackleton remain synonymous with British endeavour. This year we have been celebrating 100 years since the end of Shackleton’s extraordinary Endurance expedition, which ended with him famously rescuing his stranded crew, assisted by Chile’s brave Piloto Pardo.

We’ve also been marking an anniversary which is less well known, yet I believe just as significant in the history of Antarctica and the UK’s role there. 2016 marks a quarter century since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty’s Protocol on Environmental Protection. And I am pleased the APPG has chosen to mark this significant milestone this evening.

Just as we led the way in Antarctic exploration, so the UK was – and, I hope, remains - at the forefront of efforts to protect its environment. The Environmental Protocol is the only international agreement designed to protect an entire continent. It ensures that all human activity in Antarctica is carefully planned, to enable well-managed, environmentally sensitive tourism alongside scientific endeavour and exploration. And crucially, the Protocol prohibits commercial mining and it protects vulnerable areas, animals and plants.

While the French and Australians created the context by rejecting the previously agreed Convention on mineral exploitation, it was the UK that stepped into one of the lead roles in drafting the Protocol.

Today, the UK continues to make a major contribution to the Antarctic Treaty system: through the world class science of the British Antarctic Survey, the enthusiasm and expertise of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and the dedicated crew of the Royal Navy’s ice patrol vessel HMS Protector.

And over the years we have played a leading role in protecting Antarctica’s environment more generally. We pushed to get climate change onto the agenda at the annual meetings of Treaty Parties. We worked with the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators to develop the first guidelines for visitors to the most visited tourist sites. And our experts have led the way in limiting the spread of non native species to Antarctica, and in enhancing procedures relating to environmental impact assessments. Only the USA administers more Antarctic protected areas than the UK, and we manage the largest number of historic sites.

Thanks to the Natural History Unit of the BBC, and in particular to the tireless work of, if I might describe him as such, the legendary Sir David Attenborough, the UK has also been at the forefront of raising awareness of Antarctica across the world. And the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with the Royal Geographical Society and the British Antarctic Survey, have developed an award-winning educational website called Discovering Antarctica – which is now used by the majority of geography GCSE and A-level students. And it is only by educating the next generation about this precious part of our planet, and how it is changing, that we can hope to maintain support for protecting it.

We will continue with these efforts – not just as good citizens of the world but also because of our desire to protect the British Antarctic Territory. It is the UK’s largest overseas territory and an integral part of our interests in the South Atlantic.

But challenges facing Antarctica over the next 25 years cannot be over-stated. Over the second half of the twentieth century, the Antarctic Peninsula was one of the fastest warming regions of the planet. Plastics and heavy metals are now being found in Antarctica in increasing volumes.
That’s why it is so encouraging that international interest in the continent has increased and the Antarctic Treaty System remains active. Gone are the days when it was just seen as a rich man’s club: today, countries across all continents are engaged in Antarctic affairs. The Czech Republic became the twenty-ninth Consultative Party to the Treaty in 2013 and six countries have acceded to the Environmental Protocol over the past decade. One of those countries is Monaco – thanks in no small part to the personal efforts of Prince Albert, who I am pleased has been able to join us this evening.

Beyond the Protocol, there are other encouraging signs for the future. For example, the Antarctic has been the scene of considerable cooperation between the UK and Argentina, both within the Treaty system and in the field of science. This is an area where I hope we may be able to do even more in the coming years.

The expansion of Marine Protected Areas is another cause for optimism. We must continue to support the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources – mercifully, though not catchily, shortened to CCAMLR (generally pronounced Cam – lar)- in protecting the Antarctic Ocean and the multitude of animals that depend on it for food.

I was delighted that, at the Commission’s October meeting, after five years of discussion, the world’s largest Marine Protected Area was agreed. It is in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica. It is the second Antarctic Marine Protected Area, joining the one near the South Orkney Islands which was established in 2009 at the instigation of the UK. That is just one part of a network of Marine Protected Areas that the UK is developing across our Overseas Territories, including those around South Georgia, the British Indian Ocean Territory and Pitcairn Island.

The same Commission meeting also agreed to a UK-led proposal to give interim protection to seas newly exposed by ice shelf collapse, so that this could provide for scientific investigation. This proposal, which I know the WWF have supported, and Ben may touch on later, is exactly the kind of initiative that will help us protect the delicate and changing environment in the Antarctic region.

So can I just conclude by saying that the UK remains absolutely committed to upholding the Antarctic Treaty System and to ensuring the comprehensive protection of the precious Antarctic environment.

We in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office work closely with experts here in the UK and with the extraordinary Antarctic community across the world. So I would like to thank each and every one of them and join them to celebrate the anniversary of one of the most successful international agreements: the Environmental Protocol.

Published 8 December 2016