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Our work ended in the creation of the Antarctic Act 1994. The United Kingdom ratified the protocol in April 1995. It came into force in 1998. At that point, I felt that we had done everything necessary to preserve the environment of that unique, wonderful continent surrounded by the southern seas. But, in recent years, I have become increasingly uneasy about various developments in the Antarctic continent. In the brief time that we have, I should like to comment on some of these. I hope that the Minister will also comment on the reservations and worries that I have or at least assure us that they will all be raised at the deliberations of the International Polar Year, which begins in March. This debate comes at a very appropriate moment, as the International Polar Year begins its work in a few weeks’ time. One thing that I hope will emerge, which was raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, is that the role of the international secretariat will be strengthened, because it is vital for the preservation of the unique elements of Antarctica.

My first anxiety concerns the growth of tourism in recent years. In the past 10 years, the number of tourists visiting Antarctica has grown from fewer than 10,000 to an expected 38,000 this year. Most tourism is properly controlled by the Antarctic tour operators’ rules, which stem from our Antarctic Act 1994. The Antarctic tour operators do a good job with that, but there is not enough control over the tour companies which are outside those tour operators’ organisations and influence. More and more, they are sending groups to Antarctica who are not controlled and monitored within the rules of the Antarctic tour operators. There is a real danger that non-native species will be introduced into Antarctica, which is exactly what our 1994 Act sought to avoid.

My second anxiety concerns the potential impact of new techniques for catching Antarctic krill, which are small crustaceans that are vital foods for such species as whales, penguins and seals. New techniques have evolved to avoid Antarctic krill rotting between the net and the ship—if I can put it that way. It is said that there are 100 million tonnes of krill in Antarctic waters. My noble friend Lord Selborne referred to the problems of the fisheries. Previously, the fishing techniques were not effective. But, now, the Norwegians have been catching 120,000 tonnes a year. They have made a breakthrough in the techniques and methods of catching Antarctic krill. As my noble friend said, this could lead to serious over-fishing in years to come. Over-fishing could have a serious effect on some of the species, such as whales, penguins and seals, which live on the krill. Although, as a former fisheries Minister, I have reservations about the monitoring of catching and total allowable catches, I hope that something will be done soon.

My final concern is something which, again, the 1994 Act sought to avoid. We are told that Australia is having scheduled flights to Antarctica. The United States has built a 1,000-mile ice highway and China, India, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Belgium, South

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Korea and the United Kingdom are extending or establishing new research stations. At the same time, I get the impression that a number of international companies are salivating over the prospect of extracting minerals or oil from Antarctica, which, again, is exactly what we thought the 1994 Act would block. I hope that I am wrong and that the Minister will tell us that all these matters will be dealt with in the International Polar Year. They are vital for that wonderful continent, which we should do everything to preserve as a wilderness.

8 pm

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I join in the thanks which have been expressed to the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, for his success in securing this timely debate and for his long involvement in polar issues. I hope that he will ensure that we do not have to wait another 13 years before we can debate the results of the IPY, and that he will get a positive answer from the Minister on the retention of HMS “Endurance”.

In December, an island off the coast of India that used to have 20,000 inhabitants vanished below the waves. It was the first of an increasing number of islands that will disappear as sea levels rise due to global warming—by as much as six metres before 2050 if we accept the figures given by Al Gore in his video, “An Inconvenient Truth”. Where I live, just the other side of Camberwell New Road, we should be just above the shoreline, but if there has been a miscalculation and it turns out that sea levels rise by eight instead of six metres, the end of my road will be submerged, together with much of Lambeth and Southwark. Your Lordships can see what will happen in their own areas if they look at the website flood.firetree.net, a great piece of work by Alex Tingle.

Much of the scientific work of the International Polar Year will focus on climate change, of which the rise in sea levels is only one of the harmful effects. It is one that may become more accurately predictable through atmosphere-ocean general circulation models such as the one being developed by the UK’s Hadley Centre, and the Liverpool-based Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory’s IPY project to measure Arctic and Antarctic polar coastline sea levels as a contribution to the Global Sea Level Observing System. But we already know that the glaciers which drain the Greenland ice sheet are flowing twice as fast as they did two years ago, and if that sheet were to disappear altogether, sea levels would rise by 7.2 metres. I therefore welcome the noble Viscount’s proposal that the British Antarctic Survey’s remit should be extended to cover the North Pole as well as the South Pole. The connection between the two was underlined just the other day when it was discovered that the fragmentation of the Larsen B ice sheet was caused by a climatic event off the coast of Alaska. They are very closely connected. The British Antarctic Survey reckons that the west Antarctic ice sheet would not need to thin by very much for the ice to float, and therefore might become capable of rapid deglaciation. That is now a major research priority because if deglaciation were to begin, the present rate of sea level rise of 2 mm a year would

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accelerate and the total loss of this sheet would result in an average five-metre rise world wide.

There is UK participation in over 40 per cent of the 228 IPY-approved projects, a remarkable testimony to the distinguished contribution being made today by many UK research institutions and universities in the field. The extent of international collaboration in these projects is in accordance with the concluding statement of the Antarctic Treaty meeting in Edinburgh, which said that members would champion,

But I wonder if the process has gone far enough. Some experts say that there are too many research stations in Antarctica doing work of low calibre, and your Lordships’ Science and Technology Select Committee thought that more could be done to ensure that bases communicated more effectively with each other on scientific matters. Some 27 different states have their own facilities—I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, has counted them, but he did refer to this as a matter of concern—and a number of new ones are being built as part of the IPY programme. The Belgians, for instance, whose scientists have been content to work in other nations’ bases for the past 40 years, are spending $8.2 million on a new base to accommodate 12 people for part of the year.

The Government say that they would be extremely supportive of an initiative to avoid duplication or to foster collaboration in science programmes, but they do not believe the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research should do the job. With nine EU states having their own national bases and a 10th coming on stream, is there perhaps an argument for a common European policy and a common European programme on polar research? Collectively we might be able to match the impressive facilities of the Americans with their new $153 million facility at the South Pole designed to accommodate 150 people and approaching completion during the IPY. It has a 10-metre sub-millimetre wavelength telescope to look at the cosmic microwave background now being installed, and a high-energy neutrino detector employing thousands of photo sensors spread out over a cubic kilometre below the base. If Europe got together, could we undertake projects of that size and complexity, and expand our use of satellite measurements which the BAS says are revolutionising the study of ice sheets? The BAS core budget is around £37 million, compared with a $346 million budget for equipment and logistics alone for fiscal year 2007. Can the noble Lord tell us what is the collective total spend on polar research by the European Union and how it compares with the United States?

I was disturbed to hear what the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, had to say about the long-term funding of research by the United Kingdom because I think noble Lords will agree that the UK gets excellent value for money from the BAS. Further, since the Stern review suggests that, with a business as usual scenario, climate change would mean an average 20 per cent reduction in standards of living across the world, the Government ought to be asking NERC whether its funding strategy places sufficient weight

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on the importance of polar science and the work of the BAS in particular. Perhaps we should propose that a hefty charge be made on tourists visiting Antarctica, not only to reduce the numbers which have caused concern because of their environmental effects, but also to help defray the increasing costs of international research projects.

8.06 pm

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, for giving us the opportunity to debate the International Polar Year. I also pay tribute to the noble Viscount and my noble friend Lord Jopling for their hard work to make the Antarctic Act 1994 possible.

This country has played a major role in the exploration and study of the Antarctic since Captain Cook’s expeditions in the 18th century. The recent generous decision by Lady Philippa Scott to give the last letters of Captain Scott to the Scott Research Institute is a timely reminder of one of our most famous explorers. The public interest is a hopeful sign that our nation’s history is continuing to inspire interest in one of the most fascinating places on Earth. The extreme weather described by those extraordinarily dedicated scientists who braved the Antarctic winter, the amazing geography with both volcanoes and ice sheets, and the unique wildlife, have caught the imagination of people for many years.

It is thanks to the Antarctic Treaty that future generations will also have the opportunity to marvel at these things. This agreement, that the whole continent should be,

has kept the Antarctic free from nuclear testing and military activities, and open to researchers. It was thanks to the success of the International Geophysical Year 1957-58 that this treaty was signed. We hope that the International Polar Year 2007-08 will be equally successful in protecting the Antarctic far into the future. Can the Minister reassure the House that the Government are doing everything possible to increase the number of signatories to this treaty? My noble friend Lord Jopling was concerned about the rise in tourism to the Antarctic, not all of which is responsible. The remotest parts of the world are becoming increasingly accessible to more and more people. As different forms of tourism grow and the ways to exploit the world’s resources become ever more inventive, it is critical that as many countries as possible are signed up to the treaty and the environment protection protocol. The noble Viscount also raised concerns about HMS “Endurance” which I share. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure noble Lords on this point.

The expected visit by Princess Anne to the Antarctic this week will be the first by a member of the Royal Family. It will, I hope, serve as a timely reminder of how fragile both the environment and the earliest buildings built there are. The Antarctic Heritage Trust, of which Her Royal Highness is patron, is undertaking sterling work to preserve and

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restore Scott’s discovery hut and belongings. I hope that this visit will encourage the donation of the necessary funds.

Antarctic research has never been more important or relevant to the rest of the world. As one of the two world regions being affected most by global warming, it is crucial for our understanding of what effect human activity has on the world around us. It was in the Antarctic that scientists were able to study what we were doing to the ozone layer. It is there that we are now able to measure the atmospheric make-up over the past 10,000 years. Even regional changes in Antarctica can make themselves felt across the world, as the collapse of the massive Larsen ice shelf brought home to us in 1995. Antarctica’s ice sheets hold enough water to cause a 57-metre rise in sea levels if they were to melt.

As climate change has a greater political priority, and as we decide on how we will react to the threat of global warming, the extent and accuracy of scientific data is crucial. Research is needed to convince those who continue to have doubts about the necessity for measures such as carbon trading. It is also needed to make sure that our responses are accurately targeted, sufficiently robust and, above all, effective. The Government must tread a fine line between knee-jerk reactions to inaccurate scare-mongering and an ostrich-like refusal to see what must be done. For this, we need credible, non-partisan evidence. I hope the Government will continue to support independent research and take care that public policy is not laid open to the charge that it is based on flawed data.

My noble friend Lord Selborne mentioned the Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting held in Edinburgh in June. The numerous public events—from lectures and exhibitions to tours of the British Antarctic Survey’s ice ship RRS “James Clark Ross”—were fine examples of how the public can be involved in and educated about the work going on. I am sure that the Minister shares our hope that the International Polar Year will raise more public awareness nationwide and around the world. I support the calls for a report of the IPY findings to be presented to the Secretary-General of the United Nations at the end of the year as a way of raising the profile of the IPY and the work it does.

There is an enormous public appetite for learning about the natural world and science in general. It has been demonstrated recently by events right across the spectrum, varying from a children’s animated film based on the dangers of interfering with a species’ food supply—highlighted by tap-dancing penguins—to the large number of visitors to the exhibition resulting from the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition at the Natural History Museum.

I hope that this will make up for the baffling belief held by the Government that it is possible to turn out world-class scientists from our education system without a solid grounding in science from a young age. One of the most important lessons that the Edinburgh conference teaches us is that science is a multi-discipline area where co-operation between scientists of different stripes is necessary for the most

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relevant programmes. Our education system should be providing this solid grounding, but I have the gravest fears for our future contribution to science in the face of continuing resistance to giving every child the opportunity of studying all three core sciences at GCSE. It is no surprise that science faculties at universities are closing from a lack of applicants, as fewer and fewer children are given the opportunity of pursuing their interest in these subjects.

One country can make a difference; the £5 million funding initiative from the Natural Environment Research Council in 2004 provided a catalyst for other countries to make their own contributions to the field. I hope this Government will do everything in their power over the next year to engage as many other states as possible in the International Polar Year. I wish everyone involved great success.

8.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, on securing this debate, which was rightly described as timely. I know well the keen personal interest that he has in Antarctic matters, because he steered the Antarctic Act 1994 through this House, and from his continued attention to the detail. I am pleased that the time has returned for another debate, even if that is after 13 years; let us hope that it is not another 13 years until the next. I am also delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, who had such a role in another place, has taken part. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken of their interest in the UK’s polar work, and for doing so with such enthusiasm. I shall try to deal with all the points raised.

I start by joining the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, in congratulating Dr Mike Richardson, who retired as the FCO’s head of polar regions unit in December 2006 after 15 quite remarkable years. We owe him a lot. I also want to say immediately how much I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The remarkable contribution of UK exploration and science is vital, and it is critical that we continue it. Aside from the prospect of the noble Lord’s house being flooded, your Lordships’ House is likely to be flooded as well. These are by no means trivial issues as we look at them.

I also take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Astor, made about the necessity of continuing in the traditions of the best scientific work. Of course, that means stimulating children to be interested. I draw a little comfort from the fact that, in the scientific world, we are a nation that punches well above its weight as matters stand, if one looks at cited and refereed journals and so on. None the less, there has to be a commitment to keep that going, which I myself feel strongly.

We are standing at the beginning of International Polar Year 2007-08. The IPY will be an intense, internationally co-ordinated campaign of research to initiate a new era in polar science, and we do have the enthusiasm for it. It marks 50 years since the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, when

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international scientific collaboration in Antarctica provided a principal catalyst to the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. The noble Lord, Lord Astor, is quite right to say that the continent has been the subject of huge public interest and fascination through a much longer history than that; I think that he used the word “imagination”, which is absolutely the right one.

Almost 50 years ago, the UK was the first state to ratify the Antarctic Treaty. Fifty years 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. We are working continually to ensure that others sign up to the treaty obligations as rapidly as possible. The UK was delighted to host for the first time since 1977 the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Edinburgh in June last year. The Princess Royal not only showed great support, but did so with great knowledge. That was a real benefit to the conference, which I had the privilege of attending and speaking at.

Hosting the ATCM gave us the opportunity to showcase the United Kingdom’s historical, scientific and political contribution to Antarctica. We were widely congratulated not only on the highly professional organisation of the meeting, but also on using the opportunity to promote Antarctica to the public. The United Kingdom led discussions in Edinburgh on the identification of future priorities in order to ensure the continued protection of the Antarctic environment, to which I will return. We also led the debate about the future management of tourism—another issue I will return to in just a moment—concentrating in particular on whether the treaty parties should seek to place restrictions on the size and number of vessels operating in Antarctica to minimise the risk to the environment.

The UK has also led the development of new site guidelines for tourist visits to key Antarctic sites, and 12 new such guidelines were adopted in Edinburgh. Our draft guidelines for ballast water exchange in the Antarctic treaty area were also adopted. We launched a new interactive education website—very important for reaching younger people and keeping them interested—which subsequently achieved a Bafta nomination, and a wildlife awareness manual to provide guidance to helicopter operators in Antarctica to minimise disturbance.

Edinburgh was, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, rightly stressed, a success. I was pleased that the FCO played the role that it did, and I pay particular tribute to the British Antarctic Survey, which was fundamental to the success of the conference. Long-term research and continued data collection are vital, and the BAS has an outstanding history.

In parallel to the meeting we organised a public awareness campaign, “Discover Antarctica”, which included lectures, presentations, exhibitions and a visit by HMS “Endurance” and the British Antarctic Survey’s Royal Research Ship “James Clark Ross”. That public outreach campaign, organised jointly by the FCO and the British Antarctic Survey, recently won the Corporate Communications award for best

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public service corporate communication. I believe that was an acknowledgment of its success.

The ATCM was an opportunity to reinforce the UK’s ongoing commitment to the provisions of the Antarctic treaty. Almost 50 years on, I believe it has stood the test of time. The International Polar Year is the most significant commitment to polar science since 1957. In order to commemorate and communicate the IPY we have set aside one day of the conference to focus on the IPY’s aims and objectives. As a result of that day of presentations and discussions, the Edinburgh declaration on the International Polar Year was adopted. Crucially, that gave a collective intergovernmental commitment by the Antarctic treaty parties to support the objectives of the IPY and to support the scientists taking part. Having driven this process along, the parties, we were delighted to see, were able to respond positively, as has the Arctic Council.

During the IPY we hope that governance mechanisms of the two polar regions will seek to further enhance collaboration and co-operation, about which I will also say a little more in response to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The UK will play a full and active role in the International Polar Year. I am delighted that the Natural Environment Research Council is hosting and funding the international programme office for the IPY, based at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. I also understand that UK scientists are involved in the development of about half of all IPY activities, as was pointed out in the debate.

The UK already invests over £50 million every year in our polar science work, primarily in the Antarctic, for reasons of history and politics, as well as of science. I am afraid I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, a figure for the EU, although we will see if we can aggregate one. In any case, it is hard to compare with the United States’ spending on science, which in every area leaves the rest of the world well behind—unfortunately, in my view.


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