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The Importance of Antarctica

by Donna Reynolds

Antarctica - our southernmost, harshest and most pristine continent; a natural reserve devoted to peace and science;
"the Last Great Wilderness" (Robert Swan, O.B.E.)

Run by no government, an international agreement known as the Antarctic Treaty System has been the cornerstone of governance of Antarctica for the past few decades, strengthening environmental protections, fostering scientific research, promoting international cooperation, and suspending non-militarization and territorial claims. Established in 1959, its guardians are the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (ATCPs) – the most significant being the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Norway, Germany, Chile and Argentina. The Treaty protects Antarctica against any commercial or political interference, prohibiting "any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research", meaning that Antarctica’s natural resources can remain pristine and untouched - at least for now.

Beginning in 2041, the 'Environmental Protocol' that bans drilling and mining in the Antarctic can be reviewed. By 2048, Antarctica "could be carved up between nations like every other landmass and surrounding ocean, and slowly relieved of its resources" (Klaus Dodds, 2018). This would introduce conflict over resources such as coal, oil, gas and freshwater, but also over territorial claims. Drills, drones, aircraft and other vehicles would be routinely used, plastics and foreign species would contaminate the ice, and the once untouched continent would be a bustling place of commercial fishing, permanent settlements and tourists. This could only lead to an increase in the rate of global warming and thus the melting of the icecaps and the rise in global sea levels.

Global warming and the rise in sea levels has a particularly noticeable effect on coastal areas and small islands, where it increases the likelihood of floods and storm surges and threatens the stability of coastal communities. Africa is already enduring more than the average global sea-level rise of 3mm-4mm per year, and this is being exacerbated by coastal degradation and erosion in West Africa. Climate change and the resulting increase in temperatures and sea levels, changes in precipitation patterns and more extreme weather will intensify the already existing threat to Africa’s food and water security and socio-economic development. Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) states that “Climate change is having a growing impact on the African continent, hitting the most vulnerable hardest, and contributing to food insecurity, population displacement and stress on water resources.”

Africa has already made significant efforts in driving the global climate agenda; the ratification levels of the Paris Agreement were over 90%, and many African nations have already committed to – and made progress in – transitioning to green energy in a relatively short space of time. One approach that has been particularly successful in helping to reduce climate-related risks and impacts has been reducing poverty by promoting socio-economic growth, especially in the agricultural sector.

It is vital that we maintain these efforts. There is a need for an international collaborative approach to sustainability issues and action against climate change, and it is essential for Africa to play its part. Today’s youth, in particular, need to be in a position to make informed and sustainable decisions in the future so that they may protect this last great wilderness.


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