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Antarctica: Science and Diplomacy

Volume 670: debated on Tuesday 28 January 2020

[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Antarctica science and diplomacy.

The world today faces probably the greatest challenge it has faced for thousands of years. Unless we do something about it—something dramatic and urgent—we face environmental catastrophe not only in the Antarctic, but across the globe. That applies especially, but not only, to climate change.

Antarctica is living proof of what we are currently facing with regard to climate change. We must do something about Antarctica, and by doing something about it we can also help the rest of the globe. By focusing on every aspect of life on the great white continent and its governance, I hope that this debate will help environmental considerations elsewhere.

I start by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr Robertson, and by calling attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions, which is largely funded by the Mamont Foundation, and I personally have enjoyed a great deal of hospitality and indeed travel in the colder parts of the world courtesy of my friend, a great polar explorer and philanthropist, Dr Frederik Paulsen, who has done great work at both the north and south poles.

Dr Paulsen also inspired my interest in the poles, together with my great mate and drinking companion, probably the greatest polar explorer in Britain today, Sir David Hempleman-Adams, who has done enormous work. I pay tribute to them for inspiring my interest in the polar regions. That may be a minor interest in Parliament, and I may be the only person with it, but none the less in my view it is an extremely important one.

The APPG has been running for five years under the direction, first, of Dr Duncan Depledge, who set it up with me, and, more recently, of Sophie Montagne. I thank them both for the magnificent work they have done. The APPG has achieved great things in raising polar issues in Parliament. As well as our regular meetings and written briefings, the “Polar Notes”, which we do once a month, we have taken groups of colleagues on expeditions right up to the north end of Spitzbergen, to Greenland, and this year to Iceland. We hope this year to take an expedition to Canadian Nunavut to visit some of the most remote Inuit communities on Earth. Hon. Members will hear more about that.

Last year—admittedly, unfortunately, in the middle of a general election, but we cannot be blamed for that—we arranged the first ever Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly, in which representatives from 18 nations around the world came together here in London on 2 and 3 December to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic treaty. It was a magnificent diplomatic triumph that we were able to get a statement bringing together China, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, the UK and a whole variety of those other 18 nations from across the globe. The assembly agreed some very outspoken and robust conclusions, and I hope that the other Antarctic nations will have taken account of it.

In all that work I have been very much helped by the polar regions department of the Foreign Office, under the de facto ambassador to the poles, Jane Rumble, who has been doing the job for a few years now, ably assisted by Stuart Doubleday. They do a great job together. I have also been helped by that other great British institution, the British Antarctic Survey, so ably led by Dame Jane Francis, and the Natural Environment Research Council under Henry Burgess. Theirs might not be the most glamorous of public jobs, but they do fantastic work in those two regions of the world—regions that may well hold keys to other parts of the globe—so I salute them for all they do.

Antarctica is the last great wilderness of the world, about which just about everyone on the street knows something, and more or less nobody knows everything. Most people know that Antarctica is a continent of the size of the United States and Mexico put together. It is a huge continent, an enormous continent, covered in ice. Almost every single inch is covered by ice—not quite every inch, but nearly. It is a mile thick across the continent, and three miles thick at the deepest point. It is huge, vast ice and there is nothing else there. It is an interesting continent, because there are no trees, towns, villages, roads or people, apart from scientists—and brave people they are. It is an entire wilderness, consisting purely of ice. Most people know that that is where polar bears come from. But do they?

Almost nobody picked me up on that. If we asked people out there, they would say, “Antarctica? Oh yes—polar bears.” But that is not the case. Polar bears are in the north, penguins in the south. It is important to remember that. The north is a sea, the Arctic ocean; the south is landmass, covered by ice. It is completely different.

Most people probably know about Scott and about Roald Amundsen. Most people might know a bit about Shackleton, although that is rather specialist knowledge. However, at least until the great Sir David Attenborough highlighted these issues for us all in “Blue Planet II” and more recently in “Seven Worlds, One Planet”—both superb TV productions—most people did not know much more about Antarctica. I hope that today’s debate will help to spread the word about the great white continent and some of the challenges it faces.

I particularly wanted to hold the debate today because it is within a day of the 200th anniversary of the first occasion on which the continent was sighted. A Russian by the name of Bellingshausen claimed in retrospect—he did not claim it at the time—to have sighted the continent for the first time on 27 January 1820. In 1819, the previous year, I am glad to say that a Brit, William Smith, had sighted the islands to the north of the continent and subsequently made a landing there. He came back in 1820 with a Royal Naval officer, Edmund Bransfield, and they definitely sighted the continent on 30 January 1820, a couple of days later than Bellingshausen claimed to have done so. I think it was a great British first sighting.

Is it not astonishing that that happened after the battle of Waterloo? By that time, this country was entering into the industrial revolution, yet we had not even sighted Antarctica, far less landed on it. We followed that up: Weddell sailed 74° south a couple of years later and discovered what would become the Weddell sea, and in 1841 James Clark Ross, on HMS Erebus and Terror—ships famous because they were subsequently lost on the Franklin expedition, seeking the north-west passage—got through the ice, into the Ross sea and right up to what is now known as the Ross ice shelf. Then, of course, came the great era of Antarctic exploration, just before the first world war, with Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and all that. We know about all that.

Rather curiously, after the first world war not much happened in Antarctica until well after the second world war. The importance of the continent for the world’s climate in particular, its potential for scientific discovery and the need to save it from either commercial exploitation or militarisation became known from about 1950 onwards. That led to the signing of a huge milestone in diplomatic activity, the Antarctic treaty, the 60th anniversary of which we celebrated during the Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly just before Christmas.

In the 60 years since we signed the Antarctic treaty, it has ensured that there is neither commercial exploitation nor any kind of militarisation on the continent. It is kept for peace and for science, and it is entirely free of commerce. That in itself must be a significant diplomatic triumph. One can think of no other treaty in the world that has preserved an entire continent for 60 years so far and, I hope, for many years to come. I am glad that Britain took a leading part in arranging the Antarctic treaty 60 years ago.

Now, however, we must move forward from the relatively peaceful times we have had in Antarctica over the past couple of hundred years, because some astonishing and appalling things are occurring down there. Unless we do something about it now, significant changes will come in Antarctica. I remember attending the Earth Summit in Rio as long ago as 1992, when I was a special adviser to the then Secretary of State. It was a great summit, but we have not done the things we claimed we would do. We have allowed climate change to get worse and worse ever since, and Antarctica not only suffers the worst consequences of climate change, but creates and amplifies it.

It is interesting that at last year’s conference of the parties in Paris, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change targets did not include the Antarctic ice sheet at all. The Paris COP predictions of a 40 cm rise in the oceans did not take into account the Antarctic ice sheet. Including the Antarctic ice sheet would likely more than double that figure.

Amazingly, the Antarctic ice sheet contains 70% of the world’s fresh water. Think of that: 70% of all the fresh water in the world is in the Antarctic ice sheet, which is definitely showing signs of melting and collapsing into the sea at a most alarming rate. A couple of years ago, an iceberg the size of Manhattan broke off from the Thwaites glacier, leading to a serious international study led by the British and Americans. If the ice sheet were to collapse, water levels could rise by up to 12 feet. The northern hemisphere could be particularly affected by that, because of the way in which oceans flow. If that were to occur, we would not be able to sit in this Chamber—unless we had our snorkelling equipment. We would be well under water.

My friends at the British Antarctic Survey have just come back from a season on the Thwaites glacier carrying out probably the largest and most complex scientific field campaign ever undertaken, to try to discover exactly what is happening to it. They drilled several holes through the ice, to try to provide insight into what happens when the warm water that is increasingly coming south—the Southern ocean is warming up—meets the ice. They think the answer is that the warm water undermines the ice to the extent that, sooner or later, the ice shelf breaks off. That seems to be what happened with that huge iceberg just a couple of years ago. They have deployed robots under the ice, to try to see what is happening down there, and installed a whole host of instruments to measure the effects on the glacier.

The west Antarctic ice sheet is one of the most dramatic pieces of evidence in the world of climate change and of the catastrophe that awaits us if we do not do something about it. This debate is not about climate change, but when looking at the great white continent, the Antarctic, it is terribly important that we think seriously about it. I hope the Minister will do that in a significant way when she responds.

We in the UK have led science in the Antarctic since the very earliest days. There are about 50 research stations there from virtually every nation in the world, including Mongolia, if I am not wrong. When I visited the south pole about three or four years ago—I flew out; I did not ski—I was disappointed by the American permanent research station down there. It is a great, huge black thing stuck on the pole itself, ruining what Scott and Amundsen saw all those years ago.

The flags around the south pole itself were alternately American, British, Norwegian, American, British and so on. For the sake of my photographs, I went around and took all the American flags down and replaced them with Norwegian and British flags, because it is the Amundsen-Scott base. As a result they were very good photographs, but the Americans came out of their base and stuck all the American flags back up again. I meant no disrespect to my great friends in America, but none the less I think Scott and Amundsen would have been surprised by the huge presence of Americans at the base itself.

The British Antarctic Survey does great work. It is refurbishing our base in Rothera, on the peninsula, and of course recently commissioned, and has nearly completed, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, which will make a huge and significant contribution to polar research in both the south and the north.

Last year’s Antarctic circumnavigation navigation expedition—on a Russian ship, the Akademik Tryoshnikov—by Dr Paulsen, who funds us, was the first to take 80 scientists, many of them British. They circumnavigated the entire Antarctic content, taking samples all the way round. That is one of the most significant contributions to Antarctic science for many years. We do a huge amount for science.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent and informative speech. I have several declarations of interest to make, including that my mother is in Antarctica at the moment—possibly with the Minister’s relatives. We are blessed with the science that the hon. Gentleman mentions. My niece works on a research project on microbial life in glaciers and has mentioned to me work taking place in Antarctica, under the auspices of Aberystwyth University. Does he agree that we need to support and value that scientific research? That microbial life may offer the clues to address all sorts of problems, as well as having unintended consequences, which will also need researching.

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady—my constituency neighbour, more or less—for her important contribution. She is absolutely right: the work we are doing now in the south is incredibly important science. However, it is becoming more and more expensive, and we need to increase the amount we spend, through BAS and in other ways, to improve our scientific research. Antarctica is the most brilliant place to research things, quite apart from the continent itself, but we need to significantly increase spending on it, which is well worth doing.

These and so many other challenges and opportunities have been managed so well under the Antarctic treaty. In 1959, 12 countries, the main claimants, came together to agree the treaty. It is a short document, with only 14 articles—often the best documents are the shortest—but has been one of the most effective and long-lasting of all diplomatic treaties. It has achieved its aim of preserving the continent for peace and science, and as a result the continent is unique in having had no military conflict in the 67 turbulent years since it was first signed, which is quite some going.

In the 1980s, the treaty was followed up by the convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources—CCAMLR—which has done great work in regulating and conserving fish stocks and other mammals in the Antarctic and the Southern oceans. That was followed by the environment protection protocol in the early ’90s, which effectively established Antarctica as a natural reserve. That protocol ensures the biosecurity of the continent and regulates tourism, which we think will become a significantly increased problem over the years to come. It plateaued slightly after the banking crisis in 2008, but we now predict its exponential growth, as the hon. Lady mentioned a moment ago, over the next three to five years.

We have to think carefully about how we handle the biosecurity consequences, and the consequences for the continent, of allowing people to visit it. Most people like to go ashore at least once, to one of the places with penguins and so on, but the consequences of that could be severe. I spent some time a couple of years back in South Georgia, which had become entirely covered by rats, which came ashore from whaling ships in 19th and 20th centuries, and also, incidentally, by reindeer. Only by eradicating the rats and the reindeer, which was an enormously expensive and complicated job, has South Georgia managed to more or less return to its pristine, original condition. We would not want that to happen on the Antarctic continent, which at the moment is more or less pristine. There are signs of some cross-contamination, but by and large the continent is the pure wilderness that it always was. We must make sure that the increase in tourism, and perhaps in fishing and other activities, does not in any shape, size or form contaminate that.

International agreements, such as that to be discussed in Glasgow later this year, could learn an awful lot from the way in which the Antarctic treaty system, CCAMLR and the protocol have worked over the years. They have been a huge success in environmental terms, and we could learn some lessons from that with regard to the future of the global climate.

Britain has truly led the world in terms of science and diplomacy, and we should be proud of that, but there is an awful lot more to be done. We have championed marine protected areas around the world. In particular, in a miracle of international diplomacy, last year we had the Ross sea, just off the continent, designated as an MPA, which was superb. The Weddell sea is the biggest sea down there and an absolutely fantastic bit of ocean, but the ice is retreating on it. We are desperately trying to get it recognised as an MPA, but we are being thwarted by the Russians and Chinese, both of whom see the potential for commercially fishing it. We must overcome that. We must preserve the rich biodiversity and mammal life in the Southern ocean and, to some lesser degree, the Antarctic ocean as well.

With climate change and the growth in fishing and tourism, the treaty system needs to redouble its efforts on biosecurity in Antarctica and avoid the worst consequences that we have seen in South Georgia. The treaty parties must remain vigilant and ensure that the co-operation of the past 60 years continues and endures into the future.

It was for that reason that, as I mentioned, we took the opportunity last December of calling together Parliaments—parliamentarians—from all the Antarctic treaty countries. Eighteen countries came, and those were the leaders; we hope that when the event occurs again in two years’ time, there will be more than that. We think that Parliaments have an extremely important role in preserving the Antarctic continent and doing all the things that we have talked about with regard to peace and diplomacy and science. Governments tend to suffer from inertia or perhaps even self-interest. That is reasonable enough: the Government’s job is to look after their country. Parliamentarians are answerable to their electorate and have a very important role to play in holding their Government to account and making them do things that the Government would not necessarily otherwise want to do. It is popular pressure, after all, that has accelerated the drive towards combating climate change. There is so much more that we as parliamentarians can do here by talking about Antarctica and, incidentally, about the Arctic and encouraging the Government to do the right thing, which they might not otherwise do.

That is why we created the assembly last year. It was enormously successful. We had briefings from international scientists, tourism experts and policy makers about the work of the treaty and the challenges ahead. That was the first day. On the second day, we produced a statement, which I think will be looked back on as an important statement in the history of Antarctica. It was outspokenly robust. This was not a committee producing—what is that saying about a camel being a horse designed by a committee? It was not one of those. It was actually an extremely robust, clearly worded and sensible statement, and I hope that it will be an important beacon in the years that lie ahead.

We agreed that it would be a biannual assembly. The Arctic parliamentarians already do this every two years, so we agreed on a biannual assembly, the second one, in two years’ time, being in the southern hemisphere and probably—we hope—in Australia. We hope it will be a much bigger organisation than it was this time round, although that was a good start for what we hope will become a very long-term and important organisation.

Britain has led the world in the 200 years since the first sighting of Antarctica—it was 200 years ago today or thereabouts—and in the 60 years since the signing of the treaty. We have led the world in exploration, and I pay tribute to the great British explorers, who have done fantastic work over the years. We have led the world in scientific research, particularly from, but not limited to, the British Antarctic Survey. And we led the world in diplomatic negotiations leading to the establishment of the continent as a haven for peace and nature and scientific research. It is terribly important that we now, in a similar way, lead the world in seeking a solution to climate change, without which the future for Antarctica and for all of us looks pretty bleak. We here in the UK have pledged to uphold the Antarctic treaty and to continue to invest heavily in Antarctic research. In COP26 and elsewhere, we must now pledge ourselves to strain every sinew to combat climate change.

This week is the 200th anniversary of the first sighting of the great white continent by Bellingshausen, or perhaps by Bransfield. If we do not combat climate change and its consequences, our descendants will not live to celebrate the 400th anniversary.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) for securing this debate on an extremely important issue. He is a great advocate for the polar regions and of the need to protect our oceans. I am pleased to be a member of the APPG for the polar regions, which he chairs. My interest in the polar regions came about when I went on holiday with my husband to the Arctic region in 2015. I found the place both beautiful and fascinating and have been pleased to be able to go back since.

As has been said, 2020 is a historic year because we are marking the 200th anniversary of the first sighting of Antarctica by the Royal Navy Captain Edward Bransfield in 1820. In the 200 years since, Antarctica has had a very special place in people’s minds, but it has never been at greater risk than it is now—from two things: intrusive foreign powers and climate change.

The first threat is the more diplomatic issue. Many countries are interested in the potential of as yet unexplored and untapped mineral wealth in the region. The Antarctic treaty, which my hon. Friend mentioned, has stood the test of time—indeed, it celebrated its 60th anniversary last year—but it bans exploration for natural resources only until 2048. Obviously, when the treaty was written, that seemed like a long time ahead; it is now just 18 years away, so I am interested to know what my hon. Friend the Minister is doing to ensure that there is no exploration after that date. The possibility of unexplored oil and gas fields, coupled with the world’s largest supply of freshwater, means that the Antarctic is potentially a very attractive place to foreign actors interested in exploiting rather than preserving it. It is particularly concerning that China has stated that its objective is to “understand, protect and use” Antarctica. Concerns have been raised about what it means by the word “use”.

The second issue is climate change.

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend so soon; she is making an excellent speech. If it is any reassurance, the Chinese were at the Antarctic parliamentarians assembly before Christmas and they signed up to the statement and showed no inclination of any kind whatever to breach the Antarctic treaty now or in the future, so I think we can be assured that the Chinese are firmly onside.

That is fantastic news. I am pleased to know that all countries will work together to preserve that fantastic continent and I am therefore hopeful that we will be able to sign another Antarctic treaty lasting for another 75 years.

It seems ironic that it is the fossil fuels and the possibility of finding them that make Antarctica alluring to foreign powers but are also the thing that is causing its demise. I was interested to read a BBC report from Justin Rowlatt today. He had a very exciting visit, by the sound of it, to Antarctica and has talked about the challenges that he faced just in getting to the ice sheet and being able to stay there and see what was happening, because of the storms. The report describes the east Antarctic ice sheet as being on land and about a mile thick, being relatively stable and not really sinking into the sea, and being relatively unchanged, but it describes the west of Antarctica as being ice largely floating rather than on land. That is a smaller proportion of Antarctica—only 20%—but it is much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, of global warming, and therefore to melting into the sea.

The Thwaites glacier, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire described, is about the size of Britain, but is melting. Unfortunately, there seems to be a bit of a vicious circle, in that the more it melts, the faster it starts to melt. That glacier alone, although only a small part of Antarctica as a whole, could, if it melted completely, cause sea levels to rise by more than half a metre. The effect of that, particularly on low-lying areas of the world and the populations that live there, would be almost immeasurable.

The Antarctic serves as a bellwether for the changing climate. Some data recently produced by Antarctic scientists suggest that there is now an onset of irreversible ice sheet instability—the cycle going so far that we will not be able to reverse it. That would lead to sea levels rising by several metres, which would have catastrophic effects.

I congratulate the Government on what they have done to protect those bits of the marine environment that they can down near the south of the world, particularly in the 4 million sq km of marine protected area, including around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. That was described by my hon. Friend earlier, but I will stress again what he said. We need to have the Weddell sea as a marine protected area and to work with countries around the world to make that happen. I understand that there is a little bit of resistance, but the hope is that we will be able to overcome that. We have opportunities, particularly as we host the international climate change conference this year, to bring that issue right to the fore. I am interested in what the Government are doing to try to stop the potentially irreversible depletion of ice sheets before it is too late.

Finally, I want briefly to talk about science. Much of the knowledge about climate change has been gathered by brilliant British scientists. They have made a brilliant contribution to polar and climate science. In fact, in the period from 2011 to 2015, the UK produced the second greatest number of scientific papers in relation to Antarctica. It is crucial that we inspire a new generation of polar scientists. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) say that her mother and her niece are engaged in this field, suggesting multi-generational interest in Antarctica. It is great that they are both women. As a Conservative party vice chairman, I am interested in how to encourage more girls to study science, technology, engineering and maths. I am interested in projects such as Homeward Bound, which took 100 women from 33 countries on a three-week expedition at the end of last year, visiting 10 bases and research stations over three weeks, with the aim of getting women interested in Antarctica, giving confidence to female scientists and inspiring younger girls to consider this field of science. That kind of programme will help to bridge the gender equality gap in science. Currently, 72% of those researching globally are men; we need to get women in there too.

It is vital that the UK continues to lead the other signatories to the Antarctic treaty in fulfilling its objective to preserve the continent for peace and science, and ensures that another treaty is in place when this one runs out in 2048.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray)—perhaps I should call him my neighbour, given that he is a Glaswegian—for securing this debate. The work that he, as a member of the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions, has done to bring the House’s attention to Arctic and Antarctic matters is invaluable. As a member of the Defence Committee in the last Parliament, I was delighted that we were able to publish the work of the Defence Sub-Committee that he did so much to set up during his time on the Committee.

As is usual in debates on the polar regions instigated by the hon. Gentleman, there has been a lot of agreement. I will address three areas: the profound challenge of climate change in the polar regions, the value of scientific research-based evidence in developing policy responses to challenges in those regions, and the existing and developing defence and security challenges in the polar regions. In his intervention about China and the Antarctic, it was interesting to hear that there is a belief that the People’s Republic of China will continue to support the treaty, and I am glad to hear that. Nevertheless, I am concerned, being an observer in the Arctic Council, that there has been some dubiety about China’s support of that council in the northern polar region, and we need to keep our eye on that.

As the rest of the planet has seen the return of a geopolitical competition that we thought was over, it is important to restate for everyone listening that the type of co-operation fostered by the 1961 Antarctic treaty is not an anachronism, but an example of the rules-based order to which we should all aspire. I look forward to the Minister reiterating the Government’s commitment to the treaty’s aims and aspirations. I see a lot of positive nodding coming from the Minister.

However, that does not mean that we should not be cognisant of the changes that have taken place in the past half century. Environmental concerns have come to the fore. Losing 3 trillion tonnes of the ice sheet is not just a symptom of global heating; it encourages the usual suspects to ponder the potential of what lies beneath. Whether those resources are mineral or animal, we would be foolish to think that there was not already a quiet gold rush under way—fostered, I think, by greed rather than by necessity. Even the strictures of the 1961 treaty allow some limited economic activity. We need to get the balance right, with a real emphasis on preserving the pristine nature of the Antarctic landscape. I think I might be the only Member in this debate who has never been to either of the polar regions.

The hon. Lady has not either, but her family all seem to be going. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire was clear about the challenges posed by tourism. The Antarctic landscape can be the best friend of environmental campaigners by provoking a real interest in broader environmental and conservation issues, but that increased interest has started something of a tourist boom in the Antarctic, which could put real pressure on the pristine environment if managed incorrectly. We have not often seen that dilemma.

What can be done? I sometimes worry that there is an inverse relationship between our level of agreement on issues in this place and the seriousness with which they are taken by Her Majesty’s Government. For example, in the broader security debates—in which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire and I often take part—although we all generally agree that the current spending and strategic path this Government are on will cause real problems in the near future, defence and security continue to slip down the agenda and were barely mentioned during the election. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree.

I will sound one discordant note. Although it is precisely on issues such as the Antarctic treaty that the United Kingdom should choose to define itself as a reliable and active partner for the rules-based order, I can only wonder whether this will be yet another area where a lack of a coherent worldview will impede that resolve. The Foreign Secretary is giving a statement as we speak, and I may fundamentally disagree with him if it contains a positive for a certain investment in the Communist party of the People’s Republic of China, which has specifically stated that China now defines itself—rightfully or wrongfully—as a polar-region power. We all know the stories of the derring-do that have defined the UK’s historic relationship with the most inaccessible of places, but we cannot escape the fact that those adventures were undertaken at a time when these islands of the north Atlantic had a much surer idea of where they were going.

As a Scottish constituency MP, it would be inappropriate not to remark on the contribution that Scots have made to Antarctic exploration, which I was reminded of when my colleagues and I had our post-election photocall next to RRS Discovery in Dundee. As the most northerly nation of the United Kingdom, we know a thing or two about the polar regions, and I hope the Government will engage with the Scottish Government on their Arctic strategy. I look forward to the Minister reiterating the UK Government’s commitment to the principles of the 1961 treaty, and I thank the hon. Member for North Wiltshire for securing this debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. This is my first Westminster Hall debate of the new Parliament. I hope the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) will not mind me calling him my friend. He and I have travelled together to all sorts of far-flung parts of the globe, but sadly not to Antarctica, though we did attend the polar regions conference together in Iceland under the then chairmanship of the then President of Iceland, President Grímsson.

The hon. Gentleman made some important points. The world faces its greatest challenge in trying to preserve this extraordinary area of our planet. He said that unless something is done about climate change, we will suffer hugely—a point also made by the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson). The hon. Member for North Wiltshire also spoke about the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions, which would not exist without him. He has done remarkable things to get that group set up and ensure it has the impetus to do things and visit those regions. I congratulate him on that excellent work—long may it continue.

The hon. Gentleman thanked the officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I will leave it to the Minister to say more about them—they are her officials—but they do a remarkable job, as does every official of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He said that Antarctica was the last great wilderness on earth, reminding us that it is larger than the United States and Mexico combined; it is, indeed, a continent of ice. He added that we must redouble our efforts on biosecurity, because who knows what is locked up in that ice and may well be released, should it melt?

The hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said that the effect of climate change in Antarctica would be irreversible if we allowed the ice to continue to melt at the current rate. That would lead to an unprecedented rise in sea levels, which, as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire pointed out, could drown us here in the Palace of Westminster, never mind most of London and a lot of the United Kingdom.

When the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Terra Nova expedition led by Robert Scott, I reflected that Lawrence Oates, who died many years before I became a Member of Parliament, came from Meanwood in my constituency. On 17 March 2012, the centenary of his death, I had the privilege of unveiling a memorial plaque to him in Meanwood Park. I remind hon. and right hon. Members that he was born on 17 March 1880 and died on 17 March 1912—his 32nd birthday—during that tragic expedition. Of course, the expedition lives on in our collective memories and is absolutely vital to our understanding and our discovery of the importance of Antarctica.

As has already been mentioned, it was a Russian naval officer named Fabian—Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, a cartographer and explorer who became an admiral, and who lived from 1778 to 1852—who first spotted the ice shelf on the Princess Martha coast on 27 January 1820. That was 200 years and a day ago, according to my information. As has already been mentioned, the Antarctic is home to 70% of the world’s fresh water. Can we afford to have the ice melt into the sea, which is, of course, not fresh water? That would have a terrible effect on our ability to supply our world—humanity and all its living creatures—with fresh water.

The Antarctic treaty has been mentioned quite a lot this afternoon. It was signed in Washington DC on 1 December 1959 and came into force on 23 June 1961. It protects an area that constitutes 10% of the earth’s surface from national interests and dedicates it to peaceful scientific purposes. It is, as we have heard this afternoon, the world’s largest marine conservation area. Among its principal purposes, the treaty has to ensure

“in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”.

Perhaps that is why I am replying for the Opposition this afternoon in my role as the shadow Minster for peace.

The treaty currently has 54 member states. Article IV states:

“No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim, to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.”

There have been further additions, such as the protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic treaty, known as the Madrid protocol. Article 7 of the protocol states:

“Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.”

The protocol also states that Antarctica is a

“natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”

Article 7 absolutely prohibits any form of mining until a further review in 2048—I suspect well beyond my lifetime.

The Antarctic Act 1994 implements the treaty into UK law, thus allowing the British Government to grant permission for and monitor British activity in Antarctica: science programmes, expeditions, tourism or, indeed, heritage management, although I am slightly baffled as to what that could mean. In 2017 the British Antarctic Survey announced a £100 million investment programme to upgrade polar infrastructure. We have mentioned tourism this afternoon, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) talked about her family currently visiting the area; the Minister has family there at the moment as well. In 2018, 50,000 tourists visited Antarctica, with an expected increase of 10% in 2019. To protect the region from excessive tourism, the signatories to the treaty agreed to prevent vessels carrying more than 500 passengers from landing on the continent and to allow no more than 100 passengers to land at any one time—a very sensible precaution.

We have also talked about global warming this afternoon. As we know, global warming opens up new challenges to Antarctica that will necessitate new and more robust laws to protect the continent. More and more countries, however, have been using the United Nations convention on the law of the sea—UNCLOS—to stake a claim to marine territory. Article 76 of that treaty provides the legal means by which coastal states can gain sovereignty over vast areas of submarine continental shelf offshore from their coasts, which is something we should be wary of.

The Antarctic, as we know, is home to the Antarctic krill, the last untouched marine living resource on the planet, and long may it remain so. It is believed that the continent contains huge amounts of hydrocarbons and minerals such as zinc, iron and uranium, along with a significant number of rare earth elements. Again, we must be vigilant in ensuring that there is never the temptation to exploit the continent of Antarctica for such minerals. Doing so would wreak further destruction not only on Antarctica, but on our whole planet.

Finally, I will mention some new technologies. Thankfully, the use of drones on Antarctica has been restricted, and their use by tourists for recreational purposes is banned. Antarctica is well suited for increasing the accuracy of global positioning satellites. Since the treaty was signed in 1959, technology has advanced massively and rapidly, and the fear among many of the signatories is that some of the technologies being used and tested on the continent could be used for military purposes elsewhere. I hope that that is not the case. Perhaps the Minister will answer that question.

I am sure that across the House we all believe in a rules-based international order. We in the Opposition will play our part, and I know the Government will play theirs, in protecting the international order and the treaty so that the wonderful continent of Antarctica will be protected for future generations and for our planet Earth.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) for securing this important debate. I pay tribute to him for his work as chair of the all-party group on polar regions. It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I commend my hon. Friend’s impeccable timing. As we have heard, the debate comes slap bang between the anniversary of when the Russians claim to have discovered Antarctica and when we believe Edward Bransfield and the Royal Navy did—very diplomatic! My colleague the Minister for the Polar Regions, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, sits in the other place, so it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I, too, thank my officials at the FCO for their diligent work for us all on this issue.

I very much agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire and others have said today. The United Kingdom is an Antarctic nation. We have a proud history of exploring, studying and protecting the continent. We remain committed to our territorial claim to the British Antarctic Territory and to the links between Antarctica and our South Atlantic overseas territories. We can leave historians to debate who actually spotted Antarctica first. The 200th anniversary is a perfect opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the continent and to push for greater environmental protection, as has been mentioned so much today.

Science has been and remains a key part of the work. It was integral to the creation of the Antarctic treaty 60 years ago. It is explicitly named as the primary Antarctic activity, and its importance has continued to grow since the treaty was signed. It is good to hear about female scientists getting stuck in. We are indebted to numerous people involved in such important work for us.

The United Kingdom is at the forefront of efforts to study the continent. We are second only to the United States in terms of the volume and impact of our science, and the British Antarctic Survey is a world leader in its field. We want BAS to continue performing at this level. That is why we are investing £300 million in the new state-of-the-art polar research ship—the RRS Sir David Attenborough—and upgrading our research stations.

Scientists from British universities and other institutions use BAS vessels, aircraft and bases to understand global changes in weather, biodiversity and ocean currents. They contribute to UK Government objectives, including on climate change, energy security, global food security, innovation and economic growth. Thanks to the scientists, we now know that Antarctica drives the global ocean and atmosphere and is fundamental to understanding our planet. Antarctica is a unique place and a barometer of the global impacts of climate change. The challenges of operating there mean that international co-operation is essential.

I am most grateful to the Minister for her firm commitment to continuing the work she has described. On the question of climate change, should responsibility within the Government primarily be with the Foreign Office? I think it should be because, as she says, Antarctica is the responsibility of the Foreign Office. Alternatively, is it primarily a responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and which should it be?

There is even better news: the Prime Minister will chair the Cabinet Committee on Climate Change in the run-up to the conference of the parties in November, in Glasgow, and I do not think there can be a higher authority than that.

An example of international scientific co-operation is the Thwaites glacier research programme, a UK and US-led project studying the west Antarctic ice sheet, which is crucial to understanding the size and speed of sea level rise caused by the melting of the Antarctic. Colleagues may have seen reports about it on the BBC this morning. BAS scientists are also part of an international project to extract cores of ice up to 1.5 million years old. Those will help us to understand how carbon dioxide levels have varied in the past and, in turn, help to predict future changes. In the year when the UK is hosting the UN climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow, that sort of vital research can show the world that what happens in Antarctica matters to all of us. Changes observed by scientists in the polar regions show how crucial it is that we agree a new comprehensive deal in Glasgow to address climate change. That will be a tough test of international diplomacy, but we are ambitious and determined. Science shows us that we have no choice.

Diplomacy is also crucial to preserve Antarctica for the long term. The UK is playing its part. For example, British diplomats are working with our scientists to improve protection for the emperor penguin by having it declared a specially protected species. As the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) mentioned, my brother and sister-in-law have been there recently and are on their way back to Santiago as I speak.

We are, as several hon. Members have mentioned, committed to creating a network of marine protected areas in the Southern ocean. Our success in the designation of MPAs across our family of British overseas territories provides valuable insight. The first Antarctic MPA, close to the South Orkney islands, was a British proposal. We are also co-proponents and vocal advocates of two further large-scale MPAs, in east Antarctica and the Weddell sea. To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), our Government are calling on those countries that are blocking progress on the proposed MPAs—particularly China and Russia—to engage more constructively so that together we can deliver the long-promised network of marine protection across the Southern ocean.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire warned of countries seeking to challenge or undermine the Antarctic treaty, and I share his concerns. In response, again, to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, I can refute any suggestion that the Antarctic treaty’s environmental protocol, and its ban on commercial mining in Antarctica, expire in 2048. That is fake news. The protocol does contain a 50-year review mechanism. However, the ban on commercial mining cannot be changed without consensus on an alternative approach. The UK would not support any lessening of environmental protection in Antarctica and I do not believe that many other countries would either.

I want finally to highlight the role that parliamentarians can play in preserving Antarctica for science. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire for organising the first Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly last month, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic treaty. It was encouraging that representatives from 18 countries took part, from across the global political spectrum. They indicated full support for the principles and objectives of the treaty and sent a clear signal to Governments and policy makers around the world to remain ambitious with regard to the protection of Antarctica. I know that they will hold Governments to account for our actions.

The Government are committed to both Antarctic science and Antarctic diplomacy. The UK is a world leader on Antarctica, thanks to the expertise of our diplomats and scientists, and the valuable support from many UK-based Antarctic organisations. Two hundred years after Edward Bransfield sighted the continent, we continue to learn more about it. The United Kingdom will continue to lead the way in efforts to study and protect it for the benefit of the whole planet, and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today. I am much obliged to them.

I am enormously encouraged and enthused by what we have heard in the Chamber today. There has been not a single dissenting voice and what has been said echoes what nations around the world equally feel—that in Antarctica we have a world gem, which needs to be preserved for all time to come. Nations from China to Russia, and from here to America, accept that that is the case, and the Antarctic treaty crystallises that view. I am hugely encouraged by the passion and enthusiasm with which the Minister has expressed her support for Antarctica, despite the fact that it is not, I think, her primary responsibility in the Foreign Office—she is better at hot places than cold places. Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition have been equally clear about the subject in all that has been said, and that is hugely important. The Scottish National party may be nearer the Arctic than the Antarctic, but none the less its support is equally welcome. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) for what she has said.

Looking back, for 10 or 20 years there was no mention in Parliament of the Arctic or the Antarctic—leaving aside the good work on the Antarctic Act 2013 done by my friend Neil Carmichael, to whom I pay tribute, when he was the Member for Stroud, and a very good report produced by the House of Lords three or four years ago. I pay tribute to those who run the all-party parliamentary group on the polar regions and am glad that it has raised the profile of both polar regions in this place. I hope that the debate, and the APA, with some of the trips that we do, will take that work further. Both the Arctic and the Antarctic are of enormous significance in the world—much more than they were a few years ago—and it is right that we in Parliament should pay good attention to them. I am most grateful to all those who took part in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Antarctica science and diplomacy.

Sitting suspended.