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International Polar Year 2007-08

Volume 688: debated on Monday 15 January 2007

rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government what benefits are expected from the International Polar Year 2007–08 following the British hosting of the Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting in Edinburgh in June.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, we turn now to a rather less controversial subject. It is an enormous pleasure to return to a subject in which I have long been interested. Rather suprisingly, last time the Antarctic was discussed at all in this House was 13 years ago, when in 1994 I saw the Antarctic Bill on to the statute book. This was an important measure because it enabled the UK to implement the treaty obligation imposed by the 1991 Environmental Protocol to the original Antarctic Treaty, and to ratify that protocol.

The Bill was originally introduced in the House of Commons by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, who was at that time in the other place. It is gratifying to see that he is now here. He piloted the Bill successfully there, and to have him participate again tonight is a great pleasure. The other person who participated that time was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, who was vital in dealing with some complex issues raised at that time. I am glad that they are both speaking again. Unfortunately the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, is not able to speak this evening. Though I see her in her place temporarily, I know she has another important engagement in a few minutes’ time. It is good to see her here and I am sorry she cannot speak.

Regrettably, I have no right of reply so would like to thank the other speakers new to the cause who have joined this debate. I welcome them aboard and hope that we have another debate on this subject in less than another 13 years. I doubt if I shall be here then, or even alive—but that is another story.

Since all that time ago, the Antarctic—indeed the polar regions both north and south—have become increasingly important both to science and above all to climatology. Antarctica covers approximately one-10th of the Earth’s surface, a continent which doubles in size in winter and has over 75 per cent of the world’s fresh water supply. All this could be vulnerable to global warming with a consequent rise in mean sea level and all that would imply for the whole world. We must always remember that the treaty defines Antarctica as a “continent for peace and science”. We need to take the subject seriously, never more than at present.

This is why, among other things, the fact that the UK hosted the 29th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Edinburgh last year was so important. The deliberations were initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and I am glad that he is here and will be able to wind up the debate. The Polar Regions Unit in the Foreign Office is important, and I pay tribute to Dr Mike Richardson, who has just retired after many years’ service there, and who was in office at the time of the 1994 Act. He did sterling work, and it is important that that unit is in no way diminished and not subject to the swathe of cuts which the Foreign Office has been subjected to in recent years. The unit should be expanded not contracted—it is vital.

The meeting was also important as an opportunity to launch the International Polar Year 2007-08, which starts in March. This will be the most significant commitment to polar science since the International Geophysical Year 1957-58, but 50 years on. We are at a crucial stage and in a crucial time. This year will herald an internationally co-ordinated campaign of research to initiate a new era of polar science, particularly in building a comprehensive set of measurements concerned with the changing planetary processes—that is, amongst other matters which sound complicated, climate change.

Britain has played a leading role in Antarctica since the early days, and it is vital that this continues. It would be impossible to discuss Antarctica without mentioning the excellent work over many years of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. Unfortunately we do not have a coherent policy for the Arctic, which is much closer to us and under the same sort of threat. During the International Polar Year, the British Antarctic Survey should be encouraged to extend its coverage to include the Arctic; that is, to produce a bipolar approach. To do this double work it will need additional resources, but a bipolar approach to the two global poles would be a much more coherent policy in the present time of global warming.

Another important development is tourism, which has tripled since 1994. There is now a danger that, with larger and larger ships visiting—as is being planned for the next Antarctic summer—things could go wrong. There is a risk of accidents in these uncertain and frequently uncharted waters. This brings me to the subject of the most valuable support vessel, “Endurance”. There are rumours that she may be mothballed with other defence cuts. It is clear to one and all that “Endurance” is completely irrelevant to defence activities, but she provides a presence which is important in the light of competing territorial claims by Argentina and Chile. More importantly, she is needed to work with the British Antarctic Survey vessels, particularly in case of a disaster when her search and rescue role would be vital.

I hope the Minister can give the House some reassurance and good news on these several points. It is vital they are considered seriously in the next few years.

My Lords, I hope the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, will accept my congratulations, both on having secured this debate and on his admirably clear presentation—and not simply because that is conventional on these occasions. His deep concern for the polar environment has been known to us for many years and, as he reminded us, we owe to him and to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling—as he then was not—the Act which enabled this country to ratify the Madrid Convention. Without our ratification, it would not have entered into force.

The Antarctic embodies three concepts which are central to our generation. First is what is being called the “global commons”. Our early ancestors took possession of such limited portions of the world’s surface as they needed for subsistence, just as various species in the animal kingdom fight to protect the limited territory on which their survival depends. Nation states practice no such moderation. They gobble every inch of territory available. Like the enclosure movement in the 18th century, when greedy landlords enclosed more and more of the commons until there was hardly a common left, that is now the pattern of territorial acquisition.

In the 1950s, at the General Assembly of the United Nations, Ambassador Pardo of Malta drew attention to what he called “the common heritage of mankind”. I think he was the first to use that expression. He said that there was little territory left which was not enclosed within national boundaries, but that what was left should be cherished as our common heritage. He named three examples, probably the only ones left: the deep oceans outside the ever-widening territorial margins; outer space; and the polar regions.

By the late 1960s, we were threatened with a Klondike in the Antarctic; one national Government after another claimed territory. The United Nations, which was then addressing the various dangers threatening the oceans, was less vigilant in protecting the polar regions, and the protection of the Antarctic was left to the 12 states most concerned, which concluded a multilateral treaty—the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. The original parties, and those who were later accorded consultative status, were therefore bound in international law by their treaty obligations, while states that have not undertaken the obligations are not. Perhaps surprisingly, the treaty regime appears to be in good health. There are now plans for a permanent secretariat, which is essential to any multilateral treaty that seeks to apply a regime. When my noble friend on the Front Bench replies, I hope he can assure us that it is guaranteed adequate funding.

It seems that the parties to the treaty now represent more than 80 per cent of the world’s population, but since the treaty could not lay down a globally binding regime, territorial claims are not renounced but only suspended pending wider consideration. They remain suspended, so it is really an interim measure. The treaty was later supplemented by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

The second concept is environmental protection. We may recognise the importance of preserving parts of the globe as our common heritage, but that does not entail a common right to pollute and destroy them. There is now an assault on our family fortune. Human activity far away from the Antarctic is leading to major damage to the ice cap. This is not a matter for a regime simply protecting one continent, but there are activities in the Antarctic itself that can damage or destroy it. The Madrid Protocol—the 1991 protocol on environmental protection, which we owe to the noble Viscount—is in force, but the much more robust Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities of 1988, which would establish a commission, a secretariat and an arbitration tribunal, is still not in force, and perhaps when the Minister replies he will venture to prophesy its prospects. I hope that the United Kingdom, with its commendable record in these matters, will be in the lead.

The third concept, which deserves a passing thought, is less tangible. The wilderness is now something that we read about in history books. Very little wilderness is left in the world, and if its last traces are lost, posterity will be deprived of something irreplaceable. It is not a scientific concept—indeed, it borders on the mystical—but there are two kinds of people; those who understand that and those who think it is amusing.

The idea of an International Polar Year, which of course goes back to 1882, is a welcome international project for the mutual sharing and co-ordination of research. As a bonus, it helps to capture the intention of the international community and civil society towards the dangers to the polar regions. However, it comes with a price. Tourism is becoming a profitable industry. Tour operators are organising tours in the Antarctic. Tourism is not necessarily a bad thing if it introduces people to the magic of the wilderness, but it calls for regulation. Time precludes a sermon on that subject, but in the very act of calling attention to Antarctica, we could be in danger of destroying it. Our common heritage is as important as our national heritage. I would like my grandchildren to share it.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, for giving us this opportunity to consider matters polar. I also pay tribute to his persistent interest over 13 years. Unlike some of the other speakers in the debate, I am not nearly as well qualified as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, or my noble friend Lord Jopling, whose credentials have already been explained.

The only claim that I can make—it is a pretty tenuous one—is that when Scott sailed south on the “Discovery” expedition through the Ross Sea, he named a cape Cape Selborne after the then First Lord of the Admiralty, who had helped to get what was a naval expedition, and indeed a scientific expedition, up and running. From time to time, I check at the Royal Geographical Society map room to make sure that no one has changed the name, and I am delighted to say that it is still called Cape Selborne.

This Question refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s organisation of the consultative meeting in Edinburgh in June, and I pay tribute to what was clearly a very successful meeting, one of several that are helping to prepare us for not one year of an International Polar Year but two years, because it goes on until 2009.

International scientific polar years have been organised on three previous occasions, in the 1880s and the 1930s. In 1957 and 1958, too, there was the highly important International Geophysical Year. If ever one needed an explanation or credibility for organising scientific and explorative programmes on a large international scale, one should consider the success of the 1957-58 programme. That changed our perception of the world. The long disputed theory of continental drift was finally confirmed. Satellites were first launched then—indeed, they discovered the Van Allen radiation belt—and much of the research that was started in 1957-58 continued for many years to come, and still continues. Again, I remind your Lordships that one long-term programme undertaken by the British Antarctic Survey from 1957 onwards led in 1985 to the critical ozone-depletion paper, from which came the Montreal Protocol and much else besides.

The lesson of that is that one- or two-year programmes are highly important in engendering a sense of urgency and focus, but long-term monitoring and the back-up thereafter, such as the sometimes extremely routine number crunching, can be critical. If ever there was a justification for all this, it is that ozone-depletion paper, for which the British Antarctic Survey deserves the credit and from which the international community was able to draw the right conclusions. I do hope that, in the fourth International Polar Year, we remember the importance of basic data collection and the following long-term funding that will be required to consolidate what will certainly be a successful year or two.

Polar research is expensive. It requires ships and aircraft—fixed costs that must be met whatever the budget. When budgets are cut, as clearly they are from time to time, the impact falls not on the fixed costs but on the science budget. I am slightly saddened to see the response of the Minister in another place, Mr Jim Fitzpatrick, to a Written Question in the House of Commons in November, in which he reported that there will be a decline in the resource budget for the British Antarctic Survey from £40.7 million in 2007-08 to £37.8 million in 2009-10, and a rather more severe decrease in the capital budget. I do hope that these figures will prove to be a cautious estimate.

I noted the plea of the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, for what he described as a coherent policy between the Arctic and the Antarctic, and I very much support him on that. We do need a satisfactory balance between Arctic and Antarctic research. It is perfectly reasonable that the United Kingdom should note its interest in mineral extraction, oil extraction, shipping and fishing in the Arctic regions. Fishing is of particular interest when you remember that the conservation of Arctic fish stocks will become ever more pressing as the Arctic ice recedes. Again, both previous speakers mentioned the pressing issue of climate change and the importance of the polar regions.

It follows that it is difficult to predict the consequences on the west Antarctic ice sheet or, in the northern hemisphere, the Greenland ice sheet of further warming and melting, and over what timescale. Albeit on a longish timescale, some models predict potentially devastating long-term effects on coastal communities. We may be talking about hundreds of years or perhaps millennia. Nevertheless, it is highly important that we work further on these predictions. About 25 per cent of the land mass in the northern hemisphere is influenced in one form or another by permafrost. The effect of global warming on permafrost is that methane is removed, which increases the global greenhouse effect. Methane is infinitely more dangerous than carbon dioxide, so we need to look at these issues very carefully.

Even without climate change, the need for another international scientific agenda in the polar regions would be compelling. As we discovered in the previous polar years, we can use the vantage point of the polar regions to study much about our planet. The Earth’s inner core, the Earth’s magnetic field and geospace are correctly in the draft themes for the International Polar Year, simply because of the previous record. But climate change adds further urgency to the need for this International Polar Year, making the case overwhelming. I hope that we ensure that we are able adequately to play our part, not just for the two years but for longer, in the Antarctic and the Arctic polar regions.

My Lords, your Lordships have already been reminded that, following the signing of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty in 1991, I was invited by the Government, having drawn a satisfactory position in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills, to sponsor a Bill in the other place to allow the United Kingdom to ratify the protocol. Having steered the Bill through another place, I was fortunate to procure the willing and enthusiastic support in your Lordships’ House of my noble friend Lord Montgomery of Alamein. He has a long history of enthusiasm for this area and I am grateful to him for the work that he did in sponsoring the Bill at that time and for sponsoring this debate.

Our work ended in the creation of the Antarctic Act 1994. The United Kingdom ratified the protocol in April 1995. It came into force in 1998. At that point, I felt that we had done everything necessary to preserve the environment of that unique, wonderful continent surrounded by the southern seas. But, in recent years, I have become increasingly uneasy about various developments in the Antarctic continent. In the brief time that we have, I should like to comment on some of these. I hope that the Minister will also comment on the reservations and worries that I have or at least assure us that they will all be raised at the deliberations of the International Polar Year, which begins in March. This debate comes at a very appropriate moment, as the International Polar Year begins its work in a few weeks’ time. One thing that I hope will emerge, which was raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, is that the role of the international secretariat will be strengthened, because it is vital for the preservation of the unique elements of Antarctica.

My first anxiety concerns the growth of tourism in recent years. In the past 10 years, the number of tourists visiting Antarctica has grown from fewer than 10,000 to an expected 38,000 this year. Most tourism is properly controlled by the Antarctic tour operators’ rules, which stem from our Antarctic Act 1994. The Antarctic tour operators do a good job with that, but there is not enough control over the tour companies which are outside those tour operators’ organisations and influence. More and more, they are sending groups to Antarctica who are not controlled and monitored within the rules of the Antarctic tour operators. There is a real danger that non-native species will be introduced into Antarctica, which is exactly what our 1994 Act sought to avoid.

My second anxiety concerns the potential impact of new techniques for catching Antarctic krill, which are small crustaceans that are vital foods for such species as whales, penguins and seals. New techniques have evolved to avoid Antarctic krill rotting between the net and the ship—if I can put it that way. It is said that there are 100 million tonnes of krill in Antarctic waters. My noble friend Lord Selborne referred to the problems of the fisheries. Previously, the fishing techniques were not effective. But, now, the Norwegians have been catching 120,000 tonnes a year. They have made a breakthrough in the techniques and methods of catching Antarctic krill. As my noble friend said, this could lead to serious over-fishing in years to come. Over-fishing could have a serious effect on some of the species, such as whales, penguins and seals, which live on the krill. Although, as a former fisheries Minister, I have reservations about the monitoring of catching and total allowable catches, I hope that something will be done soon.

My final concern is something which, again, the 1994 Act sought to avoid. We are told that Australia is having scheduled flights to Antarctica. The United States has built a 1,000-mile ice highway and China, India, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Belgium, South Korea and the United Kingdom are extending or establishing new research stations. At the same time, I get the impression that a number of international companies are salivating over the prospect of extracting minerals or oil from Antarctica, which, again, is exactly what we thought the 1994 Act would block. I hope that I am wrong and that the Minister will tell us that all these matters will be dealt with in the International Polar Year. They are vital for that wonderful continent, which we should do everything to preserve as a wilderness.

My Lords, I join in the thanks which have been expressed to the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, for his success in securing this timely debate and for his long involvement in polar issues. I hope that he will ensure that we do not have to wait another 13 years before we can debate the results of the IPY, and that he will get a positive answer from the Minister on the retention of HMS “Endurance”.

In December, an island off the coast of India that used to have 20,000 inhabitants vanished below the waves. It was the first of an increasing number of islands that will disappear as sea levels rise due to global warming—by as much as six metres before 2050 if we accept the figures given by Al Gore in his video, “An Inconvenient Truth”. Where I live, just the other side of Camberwell New Road, we should be just above the shoreline, but if there has been a miscalculation and it turns out that sea levels rise by eight instead of six metres, the end of my road will be submerged, together with much of Lambeth and Southwark. Your Lordships can see what will happen in their own areas if they look at the website, a great piece of work by Alex Tingle.

Much of the scientific work of the International Polar Year will focus on climate change, of which the rise in sea levels is only one of the harmful effects. It is one that may become more accurately predictable through atmosphere-ocean general circulation models such as the one being developed by the UK’s Hadley Centre, and the Liverpool-based Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory’s IPY project to measure Arctic and Antarctic polar coastline sea levels as a contribution to the Global Sea Level Observing System. But we already know that the glaciers which drain the Greenland ice sheet are flowing twice as fast as they did two years ago, and if that sheet were to disappear altogether, sea levels would rise by 7.2 metres. I therefore welcome the noble Viscount’s proposal that the British Antarctic Survey’s remit should be extended to cover the North Pole as well as the South Pole. The connection between the two was underlined just the other day when it was discovered that the fragmentation of the Larsen B ice sheet was caused by a climatic event off the coast of Alaska. They are very closely connected. The British Antarctic Survey reckons that the west Antarctic ice sheet would not need to thin by very much for the ice to float, and therefore might become capable of rapid deglaciation. That is now a major research priority because if deglaciation were to begin, the present rate of sea level rise of 2 mm a year would accelerate and the total loss of this sheet would result in an average five-metre rise world wide.

There is UK participation in over 40 per cent of the 228 IPY-approved projects, a remarkable testimony to the distinguished contribution being made today by many UK research institutions and universities in the field. The extent of international collaboration in these projects is in accordance with the concluding statement of the Antarctic Treaty meeting in Edinburgh, which said that members would champion,

“increasing international collaboration and co-ordination of scientific studies within Antarctica”.

But I wonder if the process has gone far enough. Some experts say that there are too many research stations in Antarctica doing work of low calibre, and your Lordships’ Science and Technology Select Committee thought that more could be done to ensure that bases communicated more effectively with each other on scientific matters. Some 27 different states have their own facilities—I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, has counted them, but he did refer to this as a matter of concern—and a number of new ones are being built as part of the IPY programme. The Belgians, for instance, whose scientists have been content to work in other nations’ bases for the past 40 years, are spending $8.2 million on a new base to accommodate 12 people for part of the year.

The Government say that they would be extremely supportive of an initiative to avoid duplication or to foster collaboration in science programmes, but they do not believe the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research should do the job. With nine EU states having their own national bases and a 10th coming on stream, is there perhaps an argument for a common European policy and a common European programme on polar research? Collectively we might be able to match the impressive facilities of the Americans with their new $153 million facility at the South Pole designed to accommodate 150 people and approaching completion during the IPY. It has a 10-metre sub-millimetre wavelength telescope to look at the cosmic microwave background now being installed, and a high-energy neutrino detector employing thousands of photo sensors spread out over a cubic kilometre below the base. If Europe got together, could we undertake projects of that size and complexity, and expand our use of satellite measurements which the BAS says are revolutionising the study of ice sheets? The BAS core budget is around £37 million, compared with a $346 million budget for equipment and logistics alone for fiscal year 2007. Can the noble Lord tell us what is the collective total spend on polar research by the European Union and how it compares with the United States?

I was disturbed to hear what the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, had to say about the long-term funding of research by the United Kingdom because I think noble Lords will agree that the UK gets excellent value for money from the BAS. Further, since the Stern review suggests that, with a business as usual scenario, climate change would mean an average 20 per cent reduction in standards of living across the world, the Government ought to be asking NERC whether its funding strategy places sufficient weight on the importance of polar science and the work of the BAS in particular. Perhaps we should propose that a hefty charge be made on tourists visiting Antarctica, not only to reduce the numbers which have caused concern because of their environmental effects, but also to help defray the increasing costs of international research projects.

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, for giving us the opportunity to debate the International Polar Year. I also pay tribute to the noble Viscount and my noble friend Lord Jopling for their hard work to make the Antarctic Act 1994 possible.

This country has played a major role in the exploration and study of the Antarctic since Captain Cook’s expeditions in the 18th century. The recent generous decision by Lady Philippa Scott to give the last letters of Captain Scott to the Scott Research Institute is a timely reminder of one of our most famous explorers. The public interest is a hopeful sign that our nation’s history is continuing to inspire interest in one of the most fascinating places on Earth. The extreme weather described by those extraordinarily dedicated scientists who braved the Antarctic winter, the amazing geography with both volcanoes and ice sheets, and the unique wildlife, have caught the imagination of people for many years.

It is thanks to the Antarctic Treaty that future generations will also have the opportunity to marvel at these things. This agreement, that the whole continent should be,

“a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”,

has kept the Antarctic free from nuclear testing and military activities, and open to researchers. It was thanks to the success of the International Geophysical Year 1957-58 that this treaty was signed. We hope that the International Polar Year 2007-08 will be equally successful in protecting the Antarctic far into the future. Can the Minister reassure the House that the Government are doing everything possible to increase the number of signatories to this treaty? My noble friend Lord Jopling was concerned about the rise in tourism to the Antarctic, not all of which is responsible. The remotest parts of the world are becoming increasingly accessible to more and more people. As different forms of tourism grow and the ways to exploit the world’s resources become ever more inventive, it is critical that as many countries as possible are signed up to the treaty and the environment protection protocol. The noble Viscount also raised concerns about HMS “Endurance” which I share. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure noble Lords on this point.

The expected visit by Princess Anne to the Antarctic this week will be the first by a member of the Royal Family. It will, I hope, serve as a timely reminder of how fragile both the environment and the earliest buildings built there are. The Antarctic Heritage Trust, of which Her Royal Highness is patron, is undertaking sterling work to preserve and restore Scott’s discovery hut and belongings. I hope that this visit will encourage the donation of the necessary funds.

Antarctic research has never been more important or relevant to the rest of the world. As one of the two world regions being affected most by global warming, it is crucial for our understanding of what effect human activity has on the world around us. It was in the Antarctic that scientists were able to study what we were doing to the ozone layer. It is there that we are now able to measure the atmospheric make-up over the past 10,000 years. Even regional changes in Antarctica can make themselves felt across the world, as the collapse of the massive Larsen ice shelf brought home to us in 1995. Antarctica’s ice sheets hold enough water to cause a 57-metre rise in sea levels if they were to melt.

As climate change has a greater political priority, and as we decide on how we will react to the threat of global warming, the extent and accuracy of scientific data is crucial. Research is needed to convince those who continue to have doubts about the necessity for measures such as carbon trading. It is also needed to make sure that our responses are accurately targeted, sufficiently robust and, above all, effective. The Government must tread a fine line between knee-jerk reactions to inaccurate scare-mongering and an ostrich-like refusal to see what must be done. For this, we need credible, non-partisan evidence. I hope the Government will continue to support independent research and take care that public policy is not laid open to the charge that it is based on flawed data.

My noble friend Lord Selborne mentioned the Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting held in Edinburgh in June. The numerous public events—from lectures and exhibitions to tours of the British Antarctic Survey’s ice ship RRS “James Clark Ross”—were fine examples of how the public can be involved in and educated about the work going on. I am sure that the Minister shares our hope that the International Polar Year will raise more public awareness nationwide and around the world. I support the calls for a report of the IPY findings to be presented to the Secretary-General of the United Nations at the end of the year as a way of raising the profile of the IPY and the work it does.

There is an enormous public appetite for learning about the natural world and science in general. It has been demonstrated recently by events right across the spectrum, varying from a children’s animated film based on the dangers of interfering with a species’ food supply—highlighted by tap-dancing penguins—to the large number of visitors to the exhibition resulting from the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition at the Natural History Museum.

I hope that this will make up for the baffling belief held by the Government that it is possible to turn out world-class scientists from our education system without a solid grounding in science from a young age. One of the most important lessons that the Edinburgh conference teaches us is that science is a multi-discipline area where co-operation between scientists of different stripes is necessary for the most relevant programmes. Our education system should be providing this solid grounding, but I have the gravest fears for our future contribution to science in the face of continuing resistance to giving every child the opportunity of studying all three core sciences at GCSE. It is no surprise that science faculties at universities are closing from a lack of applicants, as fewer and fewer children are given the opportunity of pursuing their interest in these subjects.

One country can make a difference; the £5 million funding initiative from the Natural Environment Research Council in 2004 provided a catalyst for other countries to make their own contributions to the field. I hope this Government will do everything in their power over the next year to engage as many other states as possible in the International Polar Year. I wish everyone involved great success.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, on securing this debate, which was rightly described as timely. I know well the keen personal interest that he has in Antarctic matters, because he steered the Antarctic Act 1994 through this House, and from his continued attention to the detail. I am pleased that the time has returned for another debate, even if that is after 13 years; let us hope that it is not another 13 years until the next. I am also delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, who had such a role in another place, has taken part. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken of their interest in the UK’s polar work, and for doing so with such enthusiasm. I shall try to deal with all the points raised.

I start by joining the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, in congratulating Dr Mike Richardson, who retired as the FCO’s head of polar regions unit in December 2006 after 15 quite remarkable years. We owe him a lot. I also want to say immediately how much I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The remarkable contribution of UK exploration and science is vital, and it is critical that we continue it. Aside from the prospect of the noble Lord’s house being flooded, your Lordships’ House is likely to be flooded as well. These are by no means trivial issues as we look at them.

I also take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Astor, made about the necessity of continuing in the traditions of the best scientific work. Of course, that means stimulating children to be interested. I draw a little comfort from the fact that, in the scientific world, we are a nation that punches well above its weight as matters stand, if one looks at cited and refereed journals and so on. None the less, there has to be a commitment to keep that going, which I myself feel strongly.

We are standing at the beginning of International Polar Year 2007-08. The IPY will be an intense, internationally co-ordinated campaign of research to initiate a new era in polar science, and we do have the enthusiasm for it. It marks 50 years since the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, when international scientific collaboration in Antarctica provided a principal catalyst to the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. The noble Lord, Lord Astor, is quite right to say that the continent has been the subject of huge public interest and fascination through a much longer history than that; I think that he used the word “imagination”, which is absolutely the right one.

Almost 50 years ago, the UK was the first state to ratify the Antarctic Treaty. Fifty years on, the UK remains one of the leaders within the Antarctic Treaty System because of the strength of our commitment and the size of our presence in Antarctica. We are working continually to ensure that others sign up to the treaty obligations as rapidly as possible. The UK was delighted to host for the first time since 1977 the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Edinburgh in June last year. The Princess Royal not only showed great support, but did so with great knowledge. That was a real benefit to the conference, which I had the privilege of attending and speaking at.

Hosting the ATCM gave us the opportunity to showcase the United Kingdom’s historical, scientific and political contribution to Antarctica. We were widely congratulated not only on the highly professional organisation of the meeting, but also on using the opportunity to promote Antarctica to the public. The United Kingdom led discussions in Edinburgh on the identification of future priorities in order to ensure the continued protection of the Antarctic environment, to which I will return. We also led the debate about the future management of tourism—another issue I will return to in just a moment—concentrating in particular on whether the treaty parties should seek to place restrictions on the size and number of vessels operating in Antarctica to minimise the risk to the environment.

The UK has also led the development of new site guidelines for tourist visits to key Antarctic sites, and 12 new such guidelines were adopted in Edinburgh. Our draft guidelines for ballast water exchange in the Antarctic treaty area were also adopted. We launched a new interactive education website—very important for reaching younger people and keeping them interested—which subsequently achieved a Bafta nomination, and a wildlife awareness manual to provide guidance to helicopter operators in Antarctica to minimise disturbance.

Edinburgh was, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, rightly stressed, a success. I was pleased that the FCO played the role that it did, and I pay particular tribute to the British Antarctic Survey, which was fundamental to the success of the conference. Long-term research and continued data collection are vital, and the BAS has an outstanding history.

In parallel to the meeting we organised a public awareness campaign, “Discover Antarctica”, which included lectures, presentations, exhibitions and a visit by HMS “Endurance” and the British Antarctic Survey’s Royal Research Ship “James Clark Ross”. That public outreach campaign, organised jointly by the FCO and the British Antarctic Survey, recently won the Corporate Communications award for best public service corporate communication. I believe that was an acknowledgment of its success.

The ATCM was an opportunity to reinforce the UK’s ongoing commitment to the provisions of the Antarctic treaty. Almost 50 years on, I believe it has stood the test of time. The International Polar Year is the most significant commitment to polar science since 1957. In order to commemorate and communicate the IPY we have set aside one day of the conference to focus on the IPY’s aims and objectives. As a result of that day of presentations and discussions, the Edinburgh declaration on the International Polar Year was adopted. Crucially, that gave a collective intergovernmental commitment by the Antarctic treaty parties to support the objectives of the IPY and to support the scientists taking part. Having driven this process along, the parties, we were delighted to see, were able to respond positively, as has the Arctic Council.

During the IPY we hope that governance mechanisms of the two polar regions will seek to further enhance collaboration and co-operation, about which I will also say a little more in response to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The UK will play a full and active role in the International Polar Year. I am delighted that the Natural Environment Research Council is hosting and funding the international programme office for the IPY, based at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. I also understand that UK scientists are involved in the development of about half of all IPY activities, as was pointed out in the debate.

The UK already invests over £50 million every year in our polar science work, primarily in the Antarctic, for reasons of history and politics, as well as of science. I am afraid I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, a figure for the EU, although we will see if we can aggregate one. In any case, it is hard to compare with the United States’ spending on science, which in every area leaves the rest of the world well behind—unfortunately, in my view.

We can, however, acknowledge the successes of the past. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, mentioned them, as have others, such as the noble Lord, Lord Astor: the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer, and the environmental history book that the Antarctic provides. The importance of the data increases with each year that passes. It is a key barometer of climate change worldwide. As a result of the IPY, the Natural Environment Research Council have also invested an additional £4.9 million in new Arctic international science projects. Thus, we are committed to a leading role in scientific endeavours at both poles.

The resource budget of the BAS, which this year is £38 million, will be £37.8 million by 2009. The difference is £200,000. There are differences in the capital budget, but, as I understand it, and I will check this, the BAS has also received additional funding to construct a new research station at Halley, which should be operational by 2009-10—not an entirely dire picture.

That raises the question mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, whether we should draw it all together in a single institution. I have said how much we invest and that we are one of the world leaders in that investment. International Polar Year highlights the importance of scientific understanding in both polar regions and we are well placed to respond to the challenge—we need to do that as well as we can. I ask noble Lords to consider that we should certainly keep our scientific funding levels at the highest level possible. However, there are different scientific and meteorological issues at each of the poles and it is important that the very best scientists, wherever they are—in United Kingdom, in higher education and research institutions—play their role. They will not all be concentrated in one place, so I do not want to see a system that might blight some research, which is often attached to other parts of research, so that it falls away.

We cannot underestimate the work of British scientists on the physics, chemistry, geology and biology of the Antarctic, which is vital for the whole planet. That is why the BAS has set the goal of becoming the leading international centre for global science in the Antarctic context by 2012. It is quite right to do so. Already Britain can be justly proud of its input in the polar regions. I have reaffirmed our commitment and I quote my noble friend Lady Symons, who in February 2005 said:

“We are committed to maintaining the UK's high profile within the Antarctic treaty system and we recognise that securing strong scientific support for policy input into the Antarctic treaty and supporting the British Antarctic Survey to undertake world-class science reinforces the UK's influence and status at Antarctic treaty negotiations”.—[Official Report, 3/2/05; col. 475.]

We are in the same position. The governance of Antarctica is vital for the peaceful co-operation and protection of the continent in every way.

I shall make a few quick points about the vital issues that have been raised. Antarctica is protected from damaging conflicts arising from sovereignty disputes by the treaty which, since 1961, has put all sovereignty claims south of 60 degrees in abeyance. The treaty system seeks to protect the Antarctic environment through the protocol to the Antarctic treaty and other conventions add to it. I say to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer and to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, that the minerals convention will not enter force in the foreseeable future, but it has been overtaken by the environmental protocol to the Antarctic treaty which prohibits mineral resource activity other than in scientific research.

I say to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer that the Antarctic treaty secretariat will be funded. It is not totally funded at the moment but the obligation to do so by an apportionment measure enters into force and will become obligatory to all parties. It is at about the 80 per cent level at the moment. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that the treaty and the arrangements made for International Polar Year should ensure far greater scientific co-operation and we hope that that will be enhanced.

There are no propositions whatever in the current financial planning to reduce the readiness of HMS “Endurance”. We are considering “Endurance” for the long-term; like every ship, at some point, it will need to be looked at, but there are no propositions of that kind. I believe that we can have a real impact.

To the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer and to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, I make the point that we recognise that tourism is very important. It has grown a great deal and it has to be carefully planned and monitored. We have to consider the safety issues, for which “Endurance” is important, We are working hard and we will use International Polar Year to ensure that the regulations that control and support that fragile environment are at the centre of the debate, as they must be. Those concerns about impact are vital.

I conclude by saying that this country is rightly proud of its polar history. We have sovereign interests and a long-standing interest in Arctic matters which will continue. Scientists will work in those extreme environments and I have no doubt that they will contribute to the global understanding of our planet in a general sense. In my view, having built such great foundations, it would be a tragedy to let them slip. I do not for a moment believe that we have any inclination to do so. The points raised in the debate have focused not just on what has been done but on why that is essential for the future. The Government remain as committed as anyone in the House to ensure that the future of that continent is secure.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure for one minute.

Moved, accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.29 to 8.30 pm.]