36th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, Brussels, 20-29 May 2013: the Belgian state of affairs and results

date: 29 May 2013

Between 20 and 29 May, Belgium, one of the 12 founding members of the Antarctic Treaty, hosted the 36th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) and the 16th Committee on Environmental Protection Meeting (CEP). The FPS Foreign Affairs, the FPS Science Policy and the FPS Public Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment organised the meetings in the prestigious setting of Egmont Palace. Four hundred and fifty delegates, officials, prominent scientists and international observers from the fifty member countries played an active part in the debates hosted by Ambassador Otte.

What was the purpose of the meeting?

To preserve Antarctica’s unique character as a nature reserve devoted to peace and science.

What are the ATCM’s objectives?

To offer a response to the ever greater challenges and dangers facing the “White Continent”: climate change, the threat to marine and terrestrial biodiversity, and the intensification of human activity through bioprospecting and tourism.

What resources are to be set aside?

Exchange of information, but also consultation, negotiation and the adoption of measures, conclusions and resolutions (consultative parties only).

Belgium was delighted to see the Czech Republic’s candidacy as a consultative party approved, here in Brussels, by the 28 countries with the same status. The Czech Republic can now participate as a “fully-fledged” party in the 37th ATCM that is to take place in May 2014 in the capital of Brazil.

Science was, of course, central to the debates. The parties stressed the strategic role it plays in the study of climate change and other threats to the environment. They referred to the need for good science on which to base the decisions and actions taken to implement the Treaty, and the need to set aside additional scientific resources for Antarctic research.

A number of parties referred to the importance of international cooperation as a cornerstone of the Treaty. This cooperation was a core element in the speeches given by the Belgian ministers (Didier Reynders, Melchior Wathelet and Philippe Courard) and their important guests, HRH Prince Albert II of Monaco and Michel Rocard, the former Prime Minister of France. Their speeches are available at http://atcm36.antarctica.belgium.be/communique_en.stmNo label found for: as_externallink.alttag.

Belgium presented several working documents at the meeting. The multi-year plan took shape after 3 days of constructive negotiation and pressure from Belgium and Australia, and the document on bioprospecting was adopted after a lively debate. Other Belgian initiatives, on protected marine and terrestrial zones and biodiversity portal sites for researchers and policymakers, require further work at the next meeting in Brazil.

Finally, following detailed inspections in the areas of environmental impact, safety and quality of the scientific programme, the Belgian Princess Elisabeth Station received positive comments from two country partnerships (USA/Russia and Germany/South Africa).

“It has been 30 years since Belgium hosted a meeting of this type,” said ministers Reynders (Foreign Affairs), Wathelet (Environment) and Courard (Science Policy). “We would like to emphasise the quality of the organisation and the quality of the exchanges.  Belgium has justified its status as a host country and founding member of the Treaty by actively proposing initiatives in a number of areas such as bioprospecting, the exchange of scientific information, unspoilt terrestrial zones and the need to envision and anticipate action in the medium term. Real progress has been made, such as with the drafting of a multi-year strategic plan. Moreover, Belgium has shown itself as a fervent advocate of international cooperation, one of the essentials in achieving the fundamental objectives of the Treaty.  Belgian Antarctic history is still very much in progress!”

Contact person: Mieke Van de Velde - 0474/86.57.34

Belgium is pleased with its sustainable and environmental approach to the organisation of this meeting. The catering service, for example, offered only local, seasonal and organic produce. Participants were given a drinking can, which they were able to refill with fresh water from the many drinking fountains.  All the meeting’s documents were available online and on the USB sticks incorporated in the participants’ badges, which led to a significant reduction in the amount of paper used.  Furthermore, that paper was 100% recycled!

Belgian results at the 36th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting

. Multi-year strategic work plan: under the co-chairmanship of Australia and Belgium the parties accepted a multi-year strategic work plan covering the ATCM’s priorities and specific action for the next 3 to 5 years. The plan will enable the parties, experts and observers to plan work in an effective and coordinated manner and prepare more efficiently. The general points for action are:

1) ensure a reliable and effective treaty system for Antarctica, 2) strengthen environmental conservation in Antarctica, 3) ensure better management and effective regulation of human activity.

. Protected marine areas: the meeting considered a working document submitted by Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands in support of the establishment of new, protected marine areas in the Antarctic Ocean by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). The resolution put before the CEP could not be passed due to a lack of consensus. However, earlier international agreements in 2012 had stipulated the establishment of a representative network of protected marine areas, and this has put the negotiators under increased pressure.  They will meet again in Bremerhaven, Germany, to mark out two new areas in the Ross Sea and east Antarctica.

In the margins of the meeting Belgium organised the “White and Blue” event in reference to the high level of interaction between the continent and the surrounding ocean, and this was symbolised by the penguin, frequently seen moving between the two.

. Bioprospecting: Belgium joined the Netherlands and Sweden in submitting a working document and draft resolution on this subject. Bioprospecting means taking samples of the biological material typical of the Antarctic ecosystem with a view to gathering data and deriving products for any number of industrial and biotechnological applications (farming and food, pharmaceuticals, etc.). At present we know little about the economic benefit of these activities and so it is difficult at this stage to predict their development around the globe in the short to medium term.  If they do represent a windfall for science and the economy, they could represent a threat to the vulnerable Antarctic environment.  To maintain the spirit of the Treaty it will have to be possible to guarantee the free exchange of research results and discuss the conditions by which private enterprise gains access to the biological and genetic resources of Antarctica.
To our great satisfaction the Belgian draft resolution on this subject was, in the end, adopted.

. Inspections of Princess Elisabeth Station: an important element of the Treaty is that of opening research stations to unannounced inspections. The Princess Elisabeth Station underwent two joint inspections (Russia/USA and Germany/South Africa). These inspections are crucial in maintaining the credibility of the legal framework because they verify the conscientious application of the law. They also allow for an exchange of good practices in the areas of energy efficiency and waste and emission limitation, and test both the relevance and quality of the scientific research undertaken. The Princess Elisabeth Station, which is run by Federal Science Policy’s Belgian Polar Secretariat, was cited as a model base in terms of quality of facilities and environmental management. The relevance of the station’s research programme was also confirmed.

. Unspoilt terrestrial areas: Belgium submitted a working document on the human footprint and the long-term preservation of microbial terrestrial habitats, which was prepared with South Africa, the United Kingdom and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). The document emphasises that new knowledge on the biodiversity of terrestrial microorganisms identifies an urgent need to protect them against human interference and to establish unspoilt reference zones to guarantee future research. A number of delegations supported the resolution while others thought it too difficult to control the transport of microorganisms or to establish as yet unspoilt zones.  Due to a lack of consensus, the resolution was not adopted. In an inter-sessional contact group involving all parties, Belgium is now taking the initiative to keep the issue high on the agenda at future CEP meetings.

. Environment Portal Site: Belgium supported New Zealand’s plan for an environment portal site. This portal site aims to simplify the link between Antarctic scientific research and the Committee on Environmental Protection (CEP) as regards the provision of independent and controlled information on priority themes. Several parties and NGOs applauded the presentation of this already-developed tool. Other parties raised concerns over the neutrality of the information disseminated and the funding of the project in the long term.

. Biodiversity.aq: Belgium presented the Biodiversity.aq portal site, a joint initiative by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and BELSPO, a major financial contributor. This is a portal site on which scientists publish the results of their marine and terrestrial biodiversity research, to make it available to all. The initiative is in keeping with the spirit of the Treaty because it aims to exchange scientific research on Antarctica and make the results freely available. The Committee acknowledged the great value of this initiative. Buoyed by this acknowledgement, BELSPO and the Belgian platform for biodiversity promised to seek the resources needed to maintain and further develop the portal site.

. Information and awareness-raising: Belgium emphasised the importance of educational activities and the dissemination of knowledge about Antarctica and Antarctic research. For this reason, it had prepared a document describing the Belgian initiatives (2009-2012). Belgium, Brazil and Portugal managed to have this item added to the CEP agenda. Activities of this type are a matter of priority in the multi-year strategic work plan. The scientific exhibition “The polar regions come to Brussels!”, organised by the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) on 25 and 26 May in the Academy Palace, was cited as an example.

. Climate change: Belgian scientists collaborated on the updated SCAR report “Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment”. This report states that if greenhouse gases rise at their present rate the effects will be remarkable due to their speed and the polar amplification of the planet’s warming signal. The working groups also referred very frequently to climate change.

. Search and Rescue (S&R); tourism: Belgium did not submit working documents on either of these subjects but is nonetheless pleased with the progress made. The S&R group encouraged all parties to cooperate even more intensively, for example by organising joint exercises. For its part, the Tourism group confirmed the trend of allowing access to Antarctica only for well-conceived and supervised activities, in which respect for the environment is central.