Antarctica: A historic opportunity for the EU to act for the planet

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A view of a gentoo penguins in Paradise Harbor, Antarctica. [EPA-EFE/CLAUDIA KIELKOPF]

The EU has a historic opportunity to protect the Southern Ocean at the upcoming EU-China summit, write Geneviève Pons and Pascal Lamy.

Geneviève Pons is the director of the European Office of the Jacques Delors Institute. Pascal Lamy is the former director general of the World Trade Organization (2005-2013) and chairman of the executive committee of the Paris Peace Forum.

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and most isolated place on Earth. Despite and maybe because of this, it plays a huge role in regulating the health of the planet and the climate. The Southern Ocean, which wraps around the Antarctic continent, is rich in biodiversity.

The powerful circumpolar current pumps nutrients throughout the ocean globally. It is an incredible body of water, which benefits us daily wherever we are on the planet. Protecting this environment is a defining opportunity of our time, an opportunity that the European Union can seize.

In just a couple of days, on April 9, is the annual EU-China Summit in Brussels. On the agenda will be a host of issues including climate change and protection of biodiversity. The EU signed an Ocean Partnership with China during last year’s Summit.

One of its objectives is the protection of the Southern Ocean. Unfortunately, that opportunity was missed several months later when the EU and China met again in Hobart, at the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the body responsible for conserving the Southern Ocean.

In fact, China did the opposite, and for the second year, it blocked the EU’s proposal for protection of almost 1 million km2 in the East Antarctic. China and Russia are the only CCAMLR members blocking protection.

UN Arctic chief: ‘Climate change isn’t linear – it’s accelerating’

Climate change is most evident in the Polar Regions and its impact will serve as a litmus test for what happens to the rest of the planet, the UN’s chief Arctic adviser told EURACTIV in an interview.

“… The European Union and Australia have proposed to set up the biggest marine reserves in the world in Antarctica – and we invite our international partners to work with us to make this project come true. We need to join forces in our own interest,” said Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission, at the opening of the Our Ocean conference in 2017.

We couldn’t agree more. Designating an East Antarctic MPA would also boost China’s environmental credentials as it gears up to host the 2020 Convention on Biological Diversity’s 15th Conference of the Parties that will agree a new ten-year plan for nature protection.

Just a few weeks ago a NASA-funded study revealed that the Antarctic ice sheet is losing six times more ice each year than it did in the 1980s and this is accelerating. So much ice has melted that sea levels have risen globally by almost 1.5cm since 1979, threatening low-lying coastal areas worldwide as well as Antarctic marine life.

The Southern Ocean is rich in biodiversity: penguins, whales, seals, albatrosses, fish and squid abound. They are all dependent on the tiny shrimp-like krill. These krill rely on algae, which grows under the sea-ice. Melting sea ice means less krill, which in turn means less penguins … and less biodiversity.

While the Antarctic continent is protected, the Southern Ocean is still subject to commercial fishing for krill and Antarctic toothfish. Large-scale marine protected areas (MPAs) have been shown to be the best way to protect ocean biodiversity and build resilience to climate change.

Last September, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, declared at the UN General Assembly that “there is still time to save the natural habitat of many endangered species by establishing maritime sanctuaries in the Southern Ocean. Let me say it loud and clear: Those who can imagine our planet without whales, penguins and other species will also have to imagine our planet without humans.”

The path to establishing these marine protected areas is clear – the EU and China can use this summit as an opportunity to agree to work together to protect the Southern Ocean. This will demonstrate the EU and China’s global leadership on climate change action and biodiversity protection.

For both Federica Mogherini and Donald Tusk, this would also be a fitting and lasting legacy for the ocean and the health of the planet.

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