Twenty five years of the Protocol on Antarctic environmental protection

Tourists disembarking from a ship and climbing a snow-covered slope.
The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty establishes Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. Mining and mineral resource activities are prohibited indefinitely, and all activities, such as tourism (pictured), must be planned and conducted to minimise impacts. (Photo: Phil Tracey)
A penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula with rocky snow-capped peaks in the background.The Australian delegation to the Treaty meeting on a hotel balcony with a city backdrop.

This year (2016) marks the 25th anniversary of one of the key agreements that governs Antarctica – the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.

The Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Santiago, Chile, in May, provided the opportunity for the international Antarctic community to reflect on the importance of the Protocol, its enduring importance for Antarctic environmental protection, and future work to ensure Antarctica’s environment is protected.

The Protocol is a legally binding international agreement that establishes Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science, and enshrines Antarctic environmental protection as a core objective for all nations active in or interested in the region.

The Protocol was signed in 1991, and entered into force in 1998. There are now 38 Parties to the Protocol, including all of the nations that are active in Antarctica.

25th Anniversary symposium and declaration

This year’s Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting included a special symposium to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Protocol. The symposium was opened with a video message on the development and ratification of the Protocol from the Hon. Bob Hawke AC, Australia’s Prime Minister at the time of the Protocol’s adoption.

The symposium provided an opportunity for the Antarctic Treaty Parties, and observer and expert organisations represented at the meeting, to reflect on the past successes and future challenges in Antarctic environmental protection.

The symposium noted the effectiveness of the Protocol since its entry into force, the importance of the Protocol’s ban on mineral resource activities, and the flexibility afforded by the Protocol’s annexes to adapt to future challenges. The symposium participants reinforced the importance of the best available scientific evidence for future management decisions, and the facilitation of scientific efforts through collaboration and capacity building.

The symposium stressed that effective international arrangements through the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and its Committee for Environmental Protection, and continued cooperation between the Treaty Parties and all Antarctic stakeholders, are essential to delivering the objective of the Protocol – the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment – in the face of future challenges. The key outcomes of the discussions, and the commitment of the Parties to the Protocol and to meeting future challenges, were reflected in the adoption of the “Santiago Declaration”.

Reaffirming the commitment to the ban on mining

During the meeting, Australia co-sponsored, with other Parties, a Resolution titled Confirming ongoing commitment to the prohibition on Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities, other than for scientific research: support for the Antarctic mining ban. The meeting noted that there was a widespread misconception and misunderstanding that there was an ‘expiry date’, in 2048, for the Protocol’s mining ban.

The Resolution notes that the Protocol does not expire in 2048, and reinforces the commitment of all nations active in Antarctic management and governance to the Protocol’s ban on mining. Through the Resolution, the Parties:

  • acknowledge the benefits to the Antarctic environment resulting from the prohibition on activities relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, under Article 7 of the Protocol;
  • reaffirm their commitment to Article 7 of the Protocol; and
  • declare their firm commitment to retain and continue to implement this provision, as a matter of highest priority, to achieve the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems.

Phil Tracey
Senior Policy Officer, Australian Antarctic Division

Misconceptions on the mining ban

The Protocol includes an indefinite ban on mining and mineral resource activities. This ban is unambiguous: “Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited” (Article 7).

The ban represented a rapid change in thinking on Antarctica and its future. In 1988, an agreement permitting (but carefully regulating) mineral resource activities in Antarctica had been finalised. Australia, joined by France, played a pivotal role in deciding not to bring this agreement into force, and instead pushed for the Protocol and its comprehensive environmental protection regime.

The status of the Protocol’s ban on mining is often misunderstood. Some people assume that the ban on mining ‘expires’ in 2048, or that there will automatically be a review of the Protocol at that time – this is not the case.

Like most international agreements, the Protocol includes provision for review. Up until 2048, unanimous agreement of Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties would be required to change the Protocol to remove the mining ban. Fifty years after the 1988 entry into force of the Protocol (2048), a Consultative Party can request a review conference to consider part or all of the Protocol. However, even then the Protocol contains strict conditions which would have to be met before the mining ban could be changed, including that a change could not enter into force without being implemented by all 26 countries that were Consultative Parties at the time of adoption of the Protocol – including Australia.

What does the Protocol do?

  • Establishes Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science.
  • Provides comprehensive environmental protection to the area south of 60 ° South latitude.
  • Prohibits mining and mineral resource activities indefinitely.
  • Requires all activities to be planned and conducted to minimise impacts.
  • Requires environmental impact assessments for all activities.
  • Regulates waste management – wastes are to be removed, old waste and waste sites to be cleaned up.
  • Provides for designation and management of specially protected areas to provide additional protection to key values, and specially managed areas to assist in the planning and coordination of activities, avoid possible conflicts, improve cooperation, or minimise environmental impacts.
  • Provides protection for plants and animals.
  • Prevents or regulates discharge of pollutants to the marine environment.
  • Puts in place arrangements for liability associated with environmental emergencies (yet to enter into force).