What is the Helsinki Declaration and can it save Antarctica?

Last week saw leaders from across the world gather in Finland for the 45th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM). Aimed at protecting one of the most climatically significant regions on the planet, while welcoming some measures many fear this year has been a missed opportunity.

standing penguin on sand near snow covered mountain covering the sun from view at daytime

Delegates attending the nine-day event reaffirmed commitments to increase efforts to mitigate the worst of climate change impacts in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. This included negotiating and agreeing the Helsinki Declaration on Climate and the Antarctic, which expresses urgent concern about rising sea levels linked to widespread ice-sheet loss, threatening low-lying regions across the globe. 

In total, the document makes 11 ‘commitments’, ranging from intensifying efforts to collaborate on field-based research and information exchange, to increasing knowledge of regional ecosystems. A commercial mining ban has also been upheld. Technically in place since 1976, the original voluntary moratorium on extracting minerals from the continent almost led to a comprehensive ‘controlled’ regime facilitating exploration and removal. However, by the time the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) was finalised in 1988, pressure to preserve ‘the last remaining wilderness’ was so great that within two years a treaty was in place preventing any activities.

2023’s Helsinki Declaration also makes a pledge to enhance the protection of the region’s unique wildlife, which is increasingly under threat from habitat loss often driven by warming seas, with the Southern Ocean recording some of the fastest rapidly marine temperatures. Among the most at risk species is the Emperor Penguin. A study involving 28 research institutions in 12 countries found that 43% of colonies experienced total or partial breeding failure between 2018 and 2022 due to the fast break-up of ice. This is expected to reach 80% by 2100 under current conditions. 

‘Emperor penguins are especially vulnerable, with the predicted loss of suitable breeding habitat putting them on the slippery slope towards extinction. Urgent action to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5°C, to protect the waters surrounding Antarctica which are teeming with life, and to designate emperor penguins as Specially Protected Species is essential for both the continent and the planet,’ said Rod Downie, Chief Advisor, Polar Regions, at WWF, which supported the study. ‘As glaciers retreat and sea levels rise, the effects of global warming will be felt far beyond the Antarctic itself.’

Although praised for work on vulnerable species, some concerns have been raised that the results of the ATCM and commitments in the Helsinki Declaration lack any tangible new steps and bold action, reflecting a grave underestimation of the challenges now facing Antarctica. Despite a positive start to discussions specifically aimed at tourism and shipping, the failure to introduce tighter regulations on these industries were also criticised by experts. 

‘The ATCM once again missed the opportunity to act to secure Antarctica’s future, with the main output of the meeting being a declaration that does not result in any meaningful actions, and will have limited practical consequences,’ said Claire Christian, Executive Director of the Antarctic Southern Ocean Coalition. ‘Given the global importance of this region, we cannot let Antarctic decision-making be held hostage to the narrow interests of just a couple of countries. We urge all Antarctic Treaty Parties to fully embrace the spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding that lies at the core of the Treaty system.’

More on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean:

Image: Ian Parker





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