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Antarctic talks open Pandora's box

By Anthony Bergin

This week, Australia is hosting the 35th international Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting in Hobart, with nearly 50 countries in attendance. 

Antarctica has been governed through the Antarctic Treaty since 1961.

Its members have qualified for their position by demonstrating a substantial Antarctic scientific program.

In the past 12 months, two new nations have joined: Malaysia, once a vocal critic of the treaty's perceived exclusiveness, and Pakistan, which joined in March.

In January, the Iranian Students' News Agency reported that Iran intended to open an Antarctic base within three years.

This week's discussions will have a heavy emphasis on environmental issues such as guidelines on waste management and the remediation of old stations and waste tips.

The environmental impact of tourism will also be discussed. Nearly all tourism is on the Antarctic peninsula, not eastern Antarctica, where Australia is based.

While there are rules on the number of visitors, and site guidelines, there are concerns about the safety of smaller expeditions and yachts getting into trouble.

Tapping into Antarctica's biological resources for commercial gain is a likely topic. There are numerous research bodies from many states sifting Antarctic plants and animals for genetic and biochemical resources.

Some treaty countries believe this activity should be regulated while others say it is covered by existing rules. Some parties are concerned it introduces the issue of intellectual property rights in the form of patents, while others argue that it conflicts with the principle of free exchange of Antarctic information.

Liability for environmental damage could also be raised. The parties agreed to a liability protocol on this matter seven years ago. Only a handful of countries have signed up and met their responsibilities by implementing their obligations into domestic law, with Australia now very close.

Penalties are limited to $3 million for failing to respond to emergencies. But if there's a major disaster in Antarctica there is no liability regime to cover the environmental damage itself. The critical role Antarctica plays in the global climate system is likely to be canvassed in  Hobart, including the rate of loss of Antarctic ice sheets and how much this is contributing to the rise in sea levels.

Biosecurity is a hot issue. New Zealand's scientific delegation recently argued that existing current codes of conduct aimed at protecting the Antarctic environment from alien species of fungi, plants and so on were ineffective and that an international Antarctic biosecurity agency, funded by Antarctic Treaty parties and a visitor levy, should be created.

The Antarctic Treaty parties have done a good job in managing a whole continent for science but in the future they will need to drive an agenda for the cold continent, not just react to issues as they arise. There should, in particular, be greater co-ordination of Antarctic science for the benefit of all nations.

Australia has always played a major role in setting the political agenda for the continent.

This week, we are likely to use the meeting to finalise a schedule of Antarctic science cooperation between us and the Russian Federation, and to seek opportunities to advance bilateral co-operation with China and France in eastern Antarctica.

Anthony Bergin is director of research programs at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.