How China Obstructed the ‘Emperor’s March’ in Antarctica

The Arctic is not the Antarctic. Their respective faunas, in particular, set them apart: canids, symbols of the Far North (Siberian husky), are thus banned from the Far South; the polar bear is the master of the northern ice, but is absent from the southern continent where the emperor penguin proposes, by his majesty, a reign soft. However, the two borders come together around the same issue of climate change: they are indicators and catalysts of the upheavals to come and the modifications that have already occurred.

The Siberian Husky is found in the Arctic... but not in Antarctica
The Siberian Husky is found in the Arctic… but not in Antarctica – Kateryna Babaieva / Pexels

A link between this global issue and the polar fauna has just been, surprisingly to say the least, outlined by China on the occasion of the last consultative meeting to the Antarctic Treaty (ATCM) which was held in Berlin from May 23 to June 2, this cenacle bringing together the States (54) and other institutions participating in the governance of Antarctica: based on a (contested) study suggesting that the changes already induced by climate change (decrease in the extent of sea ice) would not have directly impacted polar bear populations, Beijing has indeed opposed the inclusion of the emperor penguin on the list of specially protected species of Antarctica (ESPA) .

A unique context

The 44th ATCM took place in a doubly singular context. On the one hand, the Covid-19 pandemic had prevented the holding of the meeting planned to be organized in 2020 in Helsinki, then had forced France, host country of the 43rd ATCM, to adopt the virtual mode – which had necessarily influenced the importance that Paris wanted to give to the event.

The Berlin meeting was an opportunity to reconnect with face-to-face discussions – in fact, the format was hybrid. The aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation, which began on February 24, 2022, was also invited into the negotiations. Antarctic governance, although built in the midst of the Cold War, was indeed shaken by the conflict between two of the participating States. In the Antarctic region, and in the polar regions in general, climate change is now combined with geopolitical change.

​The exploitation of resources at the heart of the challenges

The tensions expressed in Berlin are actually part of a latent questioning, observed for several years, of the international cooperation prevailing since 1959 in Antarctica. The question of the exploitation of resources is one of the catalysts, whether it concerns mineral resources or biological resources.

The oppositions concerning the latter are formalized in particular by the obstruction of China and the Russian Federation to the consecration of new marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean, areas of reinforced protection of marine fauna and flora.

​Strong principles on the protection of species

These tensions emerge in a historically consensual context regarding the protection of species belonging to the Antarctic fauna (and flora). This long-standing convergence, a code of conduct on the issue having been adopted at the first ATCM (1961), enabled the adoption of a series of measures raising the level of protection by articulating it around a double prohibition in principle : “takes” (killing), on the one hand, harmful interferences, on the other hand.

These principles have been enshrined in Annex II (Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora) of the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection (Madrid, 1991). The Annex then distinguishes between two categories of protection regimes: one, general, valid for all species and throughout the area covered by the Antarctic Treaty (south of 60 degrees south latitude); the others deploy specific regimes with regard to certain spaces and for the benefit of certain species.

The discussions surrounding the inclusion of the emperor penguin on the list of specially protected species in Antarctica (ESPA) are part of the second hypothesis.

The Controversial Emperor

Two scientists attempt to capture an (extremely rare) Ross seal specimen in Antarctica
Two scientists attempt to capture a (rarely) Ross seal specimen in Antarctica – Dr. Michael Cameron/NOAA/NMFS/NMML/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0

The regime applicable to these species is specified in paragraphs 5 to 10 of Article 3 of Annex II to the Madrid Protocol. In particular, they come to reinforce the regulations with regard to “catch”: while the granting of a permit by a national authority makes it possible to derogate from the principle of prohibition for other species of fauna (and flora), only an “indispensable scientific purpose” may justify the taking of specially protected species (no permit being otherwise admitted). This difference may seem small. However, only the Ross seal (Ommatophoca rossii) is currently on the ESPA list.

The emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) could have joined him there thanks to the Berlin ATCM. The swaying silhouette of the bird, whose population is estimated at more than half a million individuals, also accompanied the 448 delegates gathered in the capital because of the plethora of effigies of which it was reported that they adorned the chat rooms. Which echoed the debates having focused, for the first time with this intensity, on the emperor penguin.

These debates were based on documents distributed upstream to the negotiators and reflecting two deeply opposed conceptions. On the one hand, the “report of the CEP intersessional contact group created to develop an action plan for specially protected species for the emperor penguin”, notably presented by the United Kingdom, suggested its inclusion on the list of ESPA .

Pitch battle

This working document took up a proposal made at the last ATCM (Paris) by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). In his briefing note, he underlined the extent to which climate change, in particular insofar as it disturbed breeding areas (reduction of the coastal pack ice, extension of the sea ice pack), constituted the greatest threat, term, for penguin colonies.

A colony of Emperor Penguins, near the Dumont d'Urville base (Terre Adélie)
A colony of Emperor Penguins, near the Dumont d’Urville base (Terre Adélie) – Ewan Tessier / Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

This conclusion was disputed in the documents prepared by China, which therefore rejected the prospect of listing as ESPAs. In addition to the analogy with the polar bear reported above, Beijing developed a series of arguments summoning, among other things, the status of emperor penguins with regard to the red list of the Union for the conservation of nature ( IUCN) (the penguins are listed there only as a “near threatened” species and not as a “vulnerable” species), the increase in the population of the species on a regional scale, but also “the considerable uncertainty regarding the threat of climate change.

A fading consensus

This last argument is particularly significant. The fight against this change is at the heart of Antarctic governance. A weakening of the consensus of which it has hitherto been the object consequently weakens it.

In Berlin, the status of the emperor penguin has crystallized opposition on the subject – it is not insignificant that 4 of the 6 documents distributed before the meeting by China were devoted to it (a fifth concerning the distances to be observed with penguin colonies Adélie!)… For what consequences?

Just as in Berlin, an emperor penguin was represented on the logo of the first ATCM organized by China (2017), it appeared there as a shadow, distant, whose destination is unknown. So it is with international cooperation in Antarctica, whose bumpy march promises an uncertain future.

This analysis was written by Florian Aumond, lecturer in public law at the University of Poitiers.
The original article was published on the site of The Conversation.

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