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2 July 2008 : Column 284WH—continued

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East raised a number of points about Heathrow in expressing his views about our consultation, which concluded earlier this year. I certainly agree with him that issues about Heathrow are not for this debate, but it would obviously be foolish not to expect Heathrow to creep into any
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debate on aviation. However, if he looks at the material that we produced for the Heathrow consultation and the 2003 White Paper, he will certainly find the answers to a number of the questions that he put. The air transport White Paper committed us to making the best use of capacity at regional airports. A number of options were suggested by the industry prior to the White Paper; we agreed that there should be new runways in the south-east at Heathrow and Stansted, subject to meeting environmental conditions.

However, contrary to the allegations made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech)—I think that he agreed with the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and, forgive me for saying so, the hon. Member for Canterbury that this is some kind of “predict and provide” policy—there were bids for 15 runways, and the Government approved only four, only two of which were in the south-east. This policy is not about “predict and provide”, and certainly we are addressing the question of emissions. In fact, we are leading the world in respect of including aviation in the emissions trading scheme.

Mr. Ellwood rose—

Jim Fitzpatrick: I will probably be able to give way in a moment, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to respond to the points that other hon. Members have made. As I was saying, we are confident that the European Union will introduce aviation into its emissions trading scheme by 2012.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk and other hon. Members raised the question about other options not being given consideration. Under the independent airspace change process, it is for NATS to develop and to consult upon its proposals. It is then for the CAA to assess the proposals, including, as I mentioned earlier, the adequacy of the consultation materials and whether other options were proposed against regulatory requirements.

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I have responded to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, in rejecting his allegations that we have a “predict and provide” policy. I also reject his allegations that we have engaged in reverse engineering. What we have done is to demonstrate that the robust environmental standards that we are laying down for Heathrow can be accommodated, because of the evidence that we published as part of the consultation material.

The hon. Member for Canterbury asked if NATS was equipped to carry out the consultation and he raised the point that it has never before carried out a consultation that is quite so big. Our view is that NATS is equipped to carry out the consultation. Yes, it is the biggest consultation that it has ever carried out, but, as I have said before, if the CAA considers that the proposal might have a significant detrimental effect on the environment, it must advise the Secretary of State of the likely impact of the plans. It would ensure that that impact is kept to a minimum and it would refrain from making airspace change without first getting the Secretary of State’s approval.

I have perhaps 20 seconds to give way to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East.

Mr. Ellwood: The Minister has said little to help us understand about the issue of stacking over the sea; that is the issue that we need to ask about. Why cannot Stansted airport have its stacking system to the east? That way, it would not affect the area over Newmarket.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I think that I have said several times during my remarks that this matter is one for the CAA to consider. It may very well determine that the alternatives have not been fully examined and it may also very well determine that the consultation has not been satisfactory. It is for the CAA to determine whether or not the proposals are adequate.

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but we must now move on to the next debate.

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Polar Regions

4.15 pm

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): I was very pleased to secure this debate, in which I would like to mark international polar year 2007-08. International polar year will involve more than 200 projects taking place in the Arctic and Antarctic, and more than 60 nations will participate. Those projects will focus on environmental change in polar regions.

International polar year continues an important tradition of scientific advance through international co-operation. The first international polar year took place back in 1882-83 and notable progress was then made in the second international polar year, 1932-33, when the work undertaken brought advances in meteorology, magnetism and atmospheric science.

I also bring to this debate a personal interest in polar regions. Last year, I undertook a trek to the Arctic to raise money for the Children’s Society and to see for myself the effects of climate change on the Arctic. I will never forget being in the middle of nothing but snow and sky. In February, when I went, the sun seems to spend most of the day getting up, finally rising just in time to go back to bed, and so we seemed to always be in the midst of changing skies, with the snow a pink colour in reflection. Nor will I ever forget the northern lights, the silence of the place or its absolutely ethereal beauty.

However, the effects of global warming on the Arctic are already all too visible. Crossing the Arctic circle, we saw reindeer and spoke to the people who herd them. Life there is getting very difficult. The reindeer are unable to reach the moss and lichen they need, because rain falling on the snow creates a thick layer of ice on top and the reindeer are unable to break through the ice to reach their food. The reindeer scratch away at the ice with their hooves, until the hooves are completely worn out. They are forced either to migrate or simply to starve to death. Further north than we were, the problem only gets worse.

The Minister will have seen last month’s reports that this summer, for the first time in human history, it may not be possible to plant a flag at the North Pole, as the ice there will have simply melted away. Scientists reckon that there is at least a 50:50 chance that it will soon be possible to sail a boat across it.

Between 2004 and 2005, an area of thick, perennial ice the size of Turkey disappeared from the Arctic. The vast majority of the ice that now covers the area is thin one-year-old ice, which melts very easily. The problem of melting ice gets progressively worse as more sea is exposed. Dark ocean absorbs more heat than reflective ice, which leads in turn to a further increase in temperatures. Scientists expect that this process will result in a tripling of the rate of warming in the coming years.

The disappearance of thick perennial ice in the Arctic is not only a visual sign of the dramatic increase in global warming but presents a massive threat to many unique Arctic species. For many people, the symbol of the Arctic is the polar bear. However, scientists predict that, by 2050, more than two thirds of the 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic will have disappeared. Polar bears hunt on the ice and, if necessary, they swim from patch
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to patch of ice. However, as the perennial ice disappears, they have to swim further and further, and polar bears are now starting to drown.

It is not just global warming that threatens the survival of those creatures. The US has recently announced that, for the first time in 15 years, it will auction off prime oil and gas reserves in the Chukchi sea between Alaska and Siberia. That process would reduce even further the precious little habitat that polar bears have. Although I am pleased that the US Government have placed the polar bear on their endangered list ahead of the auction of those sites, I remain concerned that the legal responsibilities associated with the listing may not be fully respected. Carter Roberts, who is head of the World Wildlife Fund in the US, has said:

Is there anything that the UK can do to put pressure on the US Government to ensure that short-term American energy needs do not threaten the long-term survival of this polar treasure?

I am sure that the Minister is also aware that the Arctic is known by many of us as the land of the unicorn. The existence of this fabled beast is widely attributed to the appearance of the Arctic narwhal, when it washed up on British beaches. In mediaeval times, narwhal tusks were passed off as unicorn horns, which were supposed to have had magical, disease-curing properties. Queen Elizabeth I reportedly paid £10,000, which was the cost of building a castle, for a single narwhal tusk.

But narwhals, too, are in rapid decline. They are finely attuned to the Arctic environment and ill prepared for rapid climate change. They rely on dense Arctic pack ice for shelter, and dwindling fish stocks mean that they are running out of food. Narwhals are intensely hunted by the Inuit people of Greenland for their ivory tusks. Over the past 30 years, as restrictions on the trade of ivory have become tighter, the price of narwhal tusks has increased markedly, yet plenty of Japanese and Swiss are prepared to spend large amounts of money to buy them. The narwhal is an important source of cash for the Inuit people, but we must ensure that there is fair regulation to ensure its survival. It is thought that the population is now down as far as 25,000. Is there anything that the Government can do about the situation?

Perhaps I should now talk about Antarctica, at the other end of the world. It is very different in character from the Arctic and presents very different challenges—and, of course, part of it is British. The British Antarctic Territory has been an overseas territory of the UK since 1962, and 2008 is the centenary of the granting of its letters patent. The year will be marked by the issue of the British Antarctic Territory’s first ever legal coin.

The British have a long relationship with the region, which began with James Cook’s voyage around Antarctica between 1773 and 1775. Our love affair continued with the expeditions of Ernest Shackleton, Captain Scott and Sir Vivian Fuchs. 2008 also marks the centenary of Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition to Antarctica, and this year a group of descendants of the expedition members will go to Antarctica to follow in their footsteps.

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International co-operation is key to preserving this unique region. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic treaty, which defused tensions in the area over sovereignty. It also ensured that Antarctica is demilitarised and nuclear-free, and it enables international scientific co-operation. The treaty now consists of five international agreements which together are known as the Antarctic treaty system. The system includes the protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic treaty which came into force in 1998. The agreement prevents development and provides for the protection of the Antarctic environment. It prohibits all activities relating to mineral resources except those that involve scientific research.

I congratulate the British Antarctic Survey on the hugely important work that it does. It provides a focus for internationally co-ordinated research programmes. It has committed itself to becoming, by 2012, the leading international centre working to achieve new insights about the Antarctic and the surrounding Southern ocean. A recent expedition by BAS found more than 700 previously unknown creatures, including carnivorous sponges, worms and crustaceans living in the dark depths of the Weddell sea. Those new species will provide vital clues about evolution and are a testament to the ecological richness of the region.

The dedicated team of scientists live an unorthodox life, especially on 21 June, which is mid-winter in the Antarctic. They celebrate with a nude run in the snow. I understand that the female scientists keep the time of their streak confidential to avoid unwanted attention.

However, those unique sights are all under threat from climate change. Global warming in the Antarctic region is occurring five times faster than anywhere else in the world, and we are quickly approaching a point at which the region will no longer be able to sustain itself. Today’s Antarctic ecology was only made possible when, 40 million years ago, the seas around the peninsula cooled. Many predatory crustaceans such as crabs were driven northwards, off the Antarctic shelf. That allowed an ecosystem of thin-shelled creatures such as ribbon worms, brittle stars and sea spiders to survive.

However, in the past 40 years, the sea around the Antarctic has warmed up by more than 1° C as a result of global warming and the release of ballast water from ships. If sea temperatures rise another 1° C, all the predators that were forced out of the region will come back. They will eat everything and decimate a raft of unique, defenceless species, thereby depriving other species of much-needed food sources. If the water temperature rises another 2° C, molluscs will be unable to bury themselves in the sea bed and scallops will no longer be able to swim. Scientists predict that that is not only a possibility, but a probability within the next 100 years.

Unfortunately, the popularity of some Antarctic creatures has contributed to their demise as increasing numbers of tourists visit the region every year. Penguins have been adversely affected by climate change. The population of Adelie penguins, which I am sure the Minister will recognise as the ones with the mass of feathers over their bill, has dropped by 65 per cent. Dwindling krill supplies, which I will say more about later, have meant that the numbers in some Gentoo colonies—I believe that I heard her say from a sedentary position that they are the speedy ones, the ones that can get up to 25 miles an hour—have dropped by 30 per cent.

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Emperor penguins, which are the stars of the film, “March of the Penguins”, have been struggling to find nesting grounds on thick ice and are increasingly forced to use thin ice. That is dangerous and potentially tragic, as thin ice frequently breaks off from the main pack ice and many chicks and eggs float away into the ocean. The chicks are not old enough to survive on their own.

I crave the indulgence of the House to explain a little more about krill, which I mentioned earlier. They are truly fascinating creatures. In case Members do not know, the Antarctic krill is a crustacean that grows to around 6 cm. It has a translucent body and black eyes. A single krill weighs as much as a paper clip, but the combined biomass of all the Antarctic krill is approximately 500 million tonnes. That is roughly the weight of all the human beings in the world. Shoals of the creatures can be up to a kilometre wide.

Krill is the major food source for numerous Antarctic creatures. They are the lifeblood of the Antarctic. They convert plankton to food sources suitable for whales, penguins, seals, albatrosses, petrels and all sorts of other animals.

Krill not only provide Antarctica with food, but they are a vital tool in the fight against climate change. They have evolved their very own carbon capture technology. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by eating carbon-rich food near the surface and then excreting it in the depths. Every year, that process sequesters an amount of carbon equivalent to the emissions of 35 million cars.

However, Antarctic krill populations have declined by 80 per cent. since the 1970s. Global warming has led to an overall loss of ice coverage in the Antarctic, too, which has meant a decrease in the habitat available to the plankton and algae that they feed on. Krill are also coming under increasing threat from new fishing techniques. Suction harvesting, which literally vacuums them up from the water and removes huge numbers at a time, places a real strain on them.

Krill are increasingly being used as food for fish farms and in health supplements. They provide food for the Antarctic, they provide their own carbon capture system, and we reward them by turning them into cod liver oil. Although the number of krill being removed from the oceans is well below the levels allowed by the current quota cap, I would be grateful if the Minister could provide assurances that strict quotas will be set and enforced to ensure that krill are protected as demand for them grows.

The unique nature of the region, along with reports of naked scientists, is attracting more and more tourists. It is predicted that up to 42,000 visitors will come to Antarctica this year. That is a huge increase since 1997-98, when 9,600 tourists went to the continent. A growing influx of people to such an important and fragile place poses significant problems, including the introduction of alien or invasive species and the expulsion of ballast water from ships. I understand that a self-regulatory framework has been established by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, but could the Minister tell the House what progress has been made to put its regulations on a statutory footing?

The use of ships that have not been adequately ice-strengthened threatens the safety of passengers as well as the surrounding area. In the last two years alone, six
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vessels have gone aground or drifted in the Antarctic. Some 95 per cent. of the tourism takes place in the British Antarctic Territory—UK sovereign territory—so I would be interested to hear from the Minister what is being done, and what can be done, to limit the impact of tourism in Antarctica.

When I went to the Arctic, I linked up with primary schools and kept a blog. I wanted the children to get an insight into the polar regions. My real and continuing fear is that those regions may no longer exist when they grow up.

4.29 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on securing this debate. The polar regions are incredibly important for us. This issue is rarely discussed in Parliament, so this is a useful, important debate.

As my hon. Friend said, it is timely to focus on the polar regions now, in the middle of the international polar year, which has seen scientists from more than 60 countries mobilised in international collaborations to initiate a new era in polar science. The polar regions are of undoubted global significance: they have a profound effect on the world’s climate and ocean systems and are a unique laboratory for the study of global processes, including, as she set out so well, climate change.

The United Kingdom has a long history with the polar regions. As my hon. Friend mentioned, this year is the centenary of the UK’s claim to the British Antarctic Territory, which is by far the oldest claim to Antarctica, and it is almost 100 years since the heroic age, when Scott and Shackleton first set out on their Antarctic expeditions.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic treaty. The UK was the first state to ratify that treaty and, half a century 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. The success of the Antarctic treaty in maintaining the continent for peace and science cannot be overstated. It is a valuable example of the international community’s working together. We intend to mark the 50th anniversary by reaffirming the UK’s commitment to the treaty and, in particular, the implementation of its protocol on environmental protection, which includes an indefinite prohibition on Antarctic minerals-related activities, except for scientific research.

Both Antarctica and the Arctic face considerable challenges over the coming decades. My hon. Friend has set out a number of those, but I know, from my discussions with my officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that there are far more than can be covered in today’s short debate.

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