Germany’s priorities for action in Antarctica

Shifts in the Antarctic climate have consequences for the climate around the world. At the same time, Antarctica’s unique natural ecosystem reacts itself sensitively to global climate change. Germany has therefore a strong engagement in Antarctica – in research, in policy and when it comes to concrete protective measures. Today research is not only focussing on traditional areas like oceanography, geology, biology, glaciology and meteorology, but increasingly also on climate change issues. For example: climate data relating to the Earth’s history are stored in Antarctica’s ice cap, up to 4.5 kilometres thick. The tiny air bubbles trapped within the ice are up to a million years old and hold information about the natural development of the atmosphere. Researchers hope that this will show how human-induced environmental pollution causes climate change. This is an important basis from which to predict future developments. The urgency of tackling climate change was emphasised only recently in the Madrid Declaration supported by Germany at a meeting hosted by Spain on 4 October 2021 to mark the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. One concrete measure designed to protect and maintain biodiversity in Antarctica and to counteract the effects of climate change on and around the continent is the establishment of a representative network of protected areas.

Protected areas in Antarctica

There are already 76 Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPA) across the continent, designated over the years at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings. Germany is also  currently conducting a research project to identify further areas that might be granted ASPA protected status by the ATCM in the years ahead. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has designated Marine Protected Areas (MPA) south of the South Orkney Islands (since 2009) and in the Ross Sea (since 2016). Germany and the European Union have been committed since 2016 to establish a Marine Protected Area in the Antarctic Weddell Sea, which is particularly rich in biodiversity. The proposed MPA in the Weddell Sea covers an area of some 2.2 million square kilometres, which would make it the world’s largest marine protected area. The Weddell Sea proposal, initiated by Germany, now has the approval of most CCAMLR member states. In addition, Germany is a co‑applicant for a proposal initiated by Australia and France for a further MPA in Eastern Antarctica. Germany also supports a protected area planned by Argentina and Chile at the Antarctic Peninsula.

Special protection for the emperor penguin

Germany is endeavouring not only to protect and safeguard the habitats of many species in Antarctica for future generations. The focus of Germany’s engagement is also on a specific species: the emperor penguin. The world’s largest penguin is not only something of a mascot for Antarctica itself, but sadly also a symbol of the effects of climate change. The emperor penguin is increasingly at risk because of global warming, above all else. In the long term, therefore, Germany would like for the species to be put under the special protection of the Protocol on Environmental Protection.

Manage tourists

Another issue is tourism in Antarctica. Tourism is a “peaceful purpose” use within the meaning of the Antarctic Treaty, but one which has to meet the stringent requirements of environmental protection. The sharp rise in interest around the world, especially in Antarctic cruises, is increasing the pressure on those regions in particular that are already hard hit by climate change. Germany has long been working for sustainable tourism and sees a need for more action in the light of  continuously rising visitor numbers and increasingly diverse tourist activities. It therefore led a working group of Parties that adopted new guidelines for visitors to the Antarctic (Resolution 4 (2021)) at the Committee for Environmental Protection Meeting in Paris in 2021. Further, Germany supported the decision to use observers from member states on board cruise ships in the Antarctic Treaty area to monitor compliance with regulations (Resolution 9 (2021)). This measure is already being successfully implemented in cooperation with German cruise operators. Furthermore, Germany supports environmentally responsible sailing yacht tourism in Antarctica and made an essential contribution to the elaboration of regulations for safe yachting.