Environment Day 2023: Antarctica – for peace and science

On Environment Day, 5 June 2023, Extinction Rebellion staged a performance protest to highlight the call to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties currently meeting in Finland to support the proposal for a “forever ban” on fossil fuel exploration and exploitation in Antarctica. The short theatrical piece featured Oil Execs / Bad People pouring oil onto an iceberg, which represents the (almost) pristine wilderness of Antarctica.

In a world where much of nature has been polluted or destroyed, and where wars are fought over borders, it is vital that the Antarctic Treaty System is strengthened to protect the last part of our planet where nature mostly remains unspoilt, and where, so far, nations have agreed to hold off on greedily staking claims to land. Antarctica is a kind of global commons held in shared stewardship by 55 states, the signatories to the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) which declares that this continent should be only used for peace and science.

This week, in Helsinki Finland, delegates from the ATS signatory countries meet at the 45th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting to discuss the protection and preservation of Antarctica. South Africa is attending this meeting and has decision-making status.

Currently Antarctica is protected against all mining initiatives by the “1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty” (known as the Madrid Protocol). However, from 2048 onwards this agreement could be changed as it takes only one country to trigger a review of the protocol. Countries could then undo this mining ban and we could see nations rushing to exploit the many fossil fuels nestling under the Southern Ocean.

Not only will the mining process be an environmental and biodiversity disaster for the region, but the global implications will also be dire as the extraction and use of the fossil fuels with their associated C02 emissions will deepen the climate crisis. Given the competing claims to land and therefore mining rights, the race to carve up Antarctica will surely exacerbate geopolitical conflict.

The review of the Madrid Protocol can seem far off, but it does represent a possibility for mining in Antarctica and this has been enough to motivate some states to conduct unsanctioned prospecting for fossil fuels, for example, Russia’s research vessels have been conducting seismic blasting to map the hydrocarbons around the Southern Ocean. Permanently closing the door to mining would remove the temptation to engage in the damaging exploration of Antarctica, and it would also heed the warning call from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to stop all new oil and gas projects in order to prevent even more severe impacts of climate change.

Therefore, we call on the South African government represented at ATCM to support the proposal that individual states unilaterally, and the decision-making Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties, as a group, explicitly commit now to never commence hydrocarbon extraction in Antarctica: that is to call for a “forever ban” on fossil fuel exploration and exploitation in Antarctica.

Read the full press release here.