How Australia intends to unravel 30 years of Antarctic protection and legacy.

How Australia intends to unravel 30 years of Antarctic protection and legacy.

The 4th of October 2021 is the 30th anniversary of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty otherwise known as the Madrid Protocol. Adopted in 1991, the protocol cemented the environmental protection of Antarctica as a core value of the Antarctic Treaty system.

The Madrid Protocol should loom large in the heart of Australia’s Antarctic contribution. It was in fact the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, who announced that Australia was opposed to mining in Antarctica due to its environmental impact. As a result, Australia, along with France, sought better protection of the Antarctic environment and the Madrid Protocol was born. To sum up the treaty in a sentence, it is the commitment of all parties of the Antarctic treaty to comprehensively protect the environment of the Antarctic region.

Australia, in 2021, would do well to remember this obligation. While Australia may be celebrating the 30th anniversary this week, one of Antarctica’s most damaging infrastructure projects is doggedly being pushed ahead by the Australian government and the Australian Antarctic Division.

Australia is intending to build a giant concrete airport just outside of Davis Station in the Vestfold hills. This mega project will see over 115,000 tonnes of concrete laid in a pristine environment. It will blast petrel rookeries and displace Weddell seal pupping grounds. It will increase all of humanities disturbance footprint on the entire continent by a staggering 40%. There can be no bigger insult to Australia’s history in instigating a “commitment to comprehensively protect the Antarctic region”. It must not go ahead.

October is a big month for Australia and the Antarctic. The Australian Antarctic Division new ship, the RSV NUYINA, is due to arrive in Hobart. This ship is an incredible piece of engineering with painstaking measures undertaken to make it silent under 10knots, so as to not disturb marine mammals and provide unparalleled scientific opportunities. CCAMLR, the convention that governs the Southern Ocean and its animals will have its 40th meeting, where Australia is garnering support for a series of new Marine Protected Areas. These are laudable initiatives but how can Australia push for better marine protection when we are so ready to destroy parts of terrestrial Antarctica, where up to 160,000 Adelie penguins live?

Australia must rise to the occasion and its history. Antarctica does not need a giant concrete airport, dropped on the homes of penguins and seals. Antarctica needs protection of the entire Southern Ocean, and an end to devastating fisheries such as krill and toothfish. Crucially, if there is to be an Antarctica at all, Australia must reduce carbon emissions back here at home and encourage other Antarctic treaty parties to do the same. After all, those 29 countries currently emit 80% of all the worlds greenhouse gases. Just like mining in 1991, where Bob Hawke persuaded all 29 countries that mining should be banned all together, now is the time for Australia to honour that legacy. We must set the example and the first place to start is abandoning the Davis Airport Project to do the very thing we set in stone 30 years ago; comprehensively protect the Antarctic environment.

Alistair Allan

Alistair Allan

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