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MPs to shine a light on the impact of climate change on Antarctica, and explore whether UK Government support is sufficient

24 July 2023

From rising sea levels as a result of ice caps melting, to species such as Emperor penguins risking extinction, MPs today launch a new inquiry seeking to explore further the environmental impacts of climate change in Antarctica.

Antarctica is experiencing climate change in ways which are not well understood but which may have huge consequences for the rest of the world. The UK has a continued presence in Antarctica, such as through the British Antarctic Survey, and is well placed to collaborate with international scientists to better understand the impacts of climate change in Antarctica, and what this means for the wider world.

During this inquiry, the Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research will consider issues such as the effect of microplastic pollution and tourism on the Antarctic environment. It will also seek to understand the impact that geopolitical tensions have on scientific collaboration and whether existing environmental protections are sufficient.

The UK Government invests significantly in Antarctic science, and has recently invested almost £900 million in programmes to upgrade and expand the Rothera research station and to build the RRS Sir David Attenborough. Collectively, these projects have been described as “the largest Government investment in polar science infrastructure since the 1980s”. As a result of the vast sums involved, the Sub-Committee would like to explore whether a further policy strategy is needed, updated from its 2014 ‘UK science in Antarctica’ paper.

Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research Chair, James Gray MP, said:

“Antarctica has 90% of the world’s ice, and therefore the effects of a warming climate could be catastrophic for countries around the world. Yet, the true environmental and climate impact of climate change on Antarctica is not well known, and that is exactly what our Committee hopes to better understand.

“UK science in Antarctica attracts significant UK Government investment. We will explore the UK’s position in delivering priorities for national and international research communities, and whether they have sufficient resources to be at the forefront of Antarctic science for decades to come.”

Terms of reference

The Committee invites written submissions addressing any or all of the issues raised in the following terms of reference, by 17:00 on Friday 15 September 2023.

The Antarctic Environment

  • What are the most significant climate and environmental changes taking place in the Antarctic? What might they mean for the UK, for example in terms of sea level rise and our weather? How well prepared is the UK Government for these impacts?
  • What is the extent of plastic and microplastic pollution in the Antarctic? What could the UK Government do to reduce it?
  • What effect is climate change having on biodiversity in Antarctica? To what extent does the UK’s Blue Belt Programme address the protection of biodiversity in the Antarctic and the Overseas Territories in the South Atlantic?
  • What impact is tourism having on the Antarctic? How can the UK Government promote good business standards and best practice to reduce the environmental impact of commercial activities?

UK Science in Antarctica

  • How well placed is the UK to deliver the scientific priorities identified by national and international research communities?
  • How well does the UK support research in and about the Antarctic, and what can the UK do to position itself at the forefront of Antarctic science? What role does international collaboration play in understanding the global implications of climate change in Antarctica? How can the UK ensure that opportunities for international collaboration are maximised, and are there key partners with whom the UK should seek to work?
  • What impact has the UK’s investment in science infrastructure, through the RRS Sir David Attenborough and modernised station facilities, had on UK science in the Antarctic? How can the UK ensure that use of the UK’s infrastructure in the Antarctic is maximised, while minimising the environmental impacts of research activities?
  • How does HMS Protector benefit UK Antarctic science and how can her contribution be maximised?
  • What impact did the UK’s science Strategy UK science in Antarctica: 2014-2020 have and is a further strategy needed, especially in light of the UK’s recent capital expenditure on science infrastructure in Antarctica?

Antarctic Governance

  • What further action is needed through the Antarctic Treaty System to protect the Antarctic? What can the UK Government do to drive international action on environmental management alongside competing demands for the use of Antarctic resources?
  • What impact do current geopolitical tensions have on Antarctica, and the Antarctic Treaty System? What issues are affecting the treaty system and how can the UK use its influence to ensure that the continent remains a place of peace and cooperation?
  • How effective are the Protocol on Environmental Protection and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources at managing Antarctica’s environment? What could the UK Government do to advocate for further environmental protections through the Antarctic Treaty System?

Further information

Image: Henrique Setim/Unsplash