Is the Antarctic treaty a cause for celebration?

View of the Riiser-Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Photo: Ben Holt - National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) via Wikimedia Commons.
View of the Riiser-Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Photo: Ben Holt - National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) via Wikimedia Commons.
The Antarctic treaty is 60 years old: rising emissions are the main reason why there is nothing to celebrate this anniversary.


June the 23rd 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic treaty coming into force. While the 54 nation states currently within the treaty plan their celebrations, the west Antarctic ice shield is at risk of collapsing and the southern ocean is rapidly warming due to the escalating climate crisis.

Even though the Antarctic treaty only regulates what happens south of  60° latitude, all of its 54 member nations voted to ratify the Paris climate agreement, which committed all signatories to keep global warming 'well below 2 degrees'.

Of course, none of the countries currently appear on track to reduce emissions and while France are hosting the anniversary celebrations online, the French oil company Total is busy building the EACOP crude oil pipeline that cuts through the heart of Africa. Hardly evidence of a commitment to reducing CO2.


Rising emissions and their impact on the local ecosystem are the main reason why there is nothing to celebrate this anniversary- for the Antarctic -nor for coastal communities across the globe that will be flooded when its ice shields melt.

While some of the low lying nations of the Pacific are part of the Antarctic governance system- such as Malaysia and Papua New Guinea– as they have no money to conduct ''substantial science“ they are not granted full voting rights. In fact out of the 54 nations who make up the treaty only 29 can actually vote- the rest are 'non-consultative parties.‘

Until now the treaty system has mainly operated as an elite club, with limited public transparency. Over the years it has become unable to take important decisions, due in part to how its internal democracy functions, which uses a system based on establishing consensus. Despite these shortcomings, the treaty it usually presented as a successful example of global cooporation. However, environmental management only came into force after the Madrid protocol of 1998. 

In fact, it is one of the very last policy spaces that has largely escaped the scrutiny of environmental justice activists. But just because its ecosystem is remote it doesn't mean we shouldn't be paying attention.

When I first visited the southern ocean that surrounds Antarctica in 2012- onboard the German polar research icebreaker 'Polarstern'- the ecological crisis was evident, however how social justice related to Antarctica was not entirely obvious to me.

When I did consider social justice, I mainly thought of Antarctica's physical links, such as the thermohaline ocean circulation system that connects the waters of the southern ocean to all other oceans except the Arctic. Or the whales that migrate to the southern ocean during the austral summer to feed on the abundant krill,  the tiny crustaceans which are the base of the Antarctic food web  and whose populations, it has been predicted, will drop by 30% at the end of the century as a result of global warming.

Social Justice

However, over my last eight visits to the Antarctic, onboard science, expedition, governmental and environmental campaign vessels, social injustice has become more visible and harder to ignore.

One of the most obvious and pressing social justice issues can be found within the polar expedition 'cruise ship'  industry. On these ships crew from the Philippines work 12-14hr shifts everyday, often on short-term contracts that range from 6 to 12 months. However, crew drawn from EU countries only need to work 3-4 months before they can take their leave.

The industry itself caters to upscale tourists who have come to explore one of the world's most remote places. On a 100 passenger 5 star cruise vessel, a 10 day voyage to Antarctica can easily cost upwards of 10.000 Euros. The average tourist trip, which includes flights, emits 5,5 tons CO2, which is more than 4 Filipino nationals will emit in one year.

With this in mind, what fees do the industry pay to the Antarctic treaty system so as to finance ecosystem monitoring and management due to the growing tourism industry that reached 50.000 visitors  in 2018/19? Absolutely nothing.

The Antarctic tourism industry remains to this day completely self-regulated. The industry provides their own guidelines for reducing disturbance to wildlife or local flora, but obviously is not planning to limit the growth of an industry that continues to commission more and more specialised 'ice-class' tourist vessels into its service every year.


One of the industry's biggest green-washing exercises is the lie that Antarctica actually benefits from visitation. The spin runs something like this, that the tourists who arrive become advocates and ambassadors for environmental protection. However, 3 months after visitation to Antarctica, there is no measurable behaviour change among those who visited. The reality is that visitors are more likely to encourage their friends to visit Antarctica before it melts, a rush to consume that is best described as 'last chance' tourism. 

Its not just the tourist trade that contains hidden social justice issues, but the Fishing industry as well. Since 2017 the international maritime organisation's polar code, forces most ships to comply with stricter safety measures while operating in polar waters, however, smaller vessels such as yachts and fishing vessels in general are exempt from the new regulations.

Data shows that most casualties of shipping accidents in the southern ocean over the last 30 years were among fishermen. The Antarctic treaty nations regulate the regional fisheries and as such could easily demand that fishing vessels comply with stricter rules in order to attain their licenses. However, the lives of fishermen do not seem to have much importance in any ocean.

A much bigger dispute inside Antarctic marine governance is the issue of fishing itself. Toothfish and krill are the only commercially used species in the southern ocean, and there remains a pressing necessity to implement more marine protected areas.

In the debates around spatial and temporal access and the setting of catch limits, the question of why anyone is allowed to fish in this ecosystem at all is never addressed, despite the fact that the catch from the southern ocean contributes basically nothing to global food security.


Toothfish, as even some companies in the industry will admit, is fished exclusively for upscale restaurants, sold in wholesale markets for around 50 Euro per kilo.

Krill is hardly consumed by anyone directly. It is mainly used in fish feed for aquaculture, to give a nice colour to salmon. It is also used in Omega 3 health supplements for both humans and pets, which led one commentator to ask the question whether we were 'barking mad“ to introduce dogs into the southern ocean food chain.

The IPCC tells us that we need rapid and far-reaching reductions in GHG emissions. Shutting down a fishing industry that does nothing for food security would be one of the easiest ways to reduce emissions.

In fact, the Norwegian krill fishing company Aker Biomarine preemptively announced it would soon operate the first Antarctic fishing vessel powered by more ecological ammonia fuel -while conveniently forgetting to mention that Aker BP actually produce oil with BP. As an aside, Aker Solutions were also involved in building parts for the Guantanamo prison complex.

Instead of being anywhere near stopping fishing inside the region, China and Russia are actively blocking the designation of marine protected areas, which if established would restrict fishing away from especially sensitive areas.


A historic impasse on fisheries management was reached during the last marine management meeting, in which a dispute over an illegal Russian fishing vessel, that was photographed by a New Zealand aircraft, brought proceedings to a halt. Since consensus is needed for any decision within the Antarctic Treaty system, Russia simply refused to sanction its own vessels for illegal fishing and instead accused New Zealand of faking the GPS data on the photo, leaving NGO observers and delegates of conservation organisations in stunned despair.

Is there literally nothing to celebrate in Antarctic governance?

Of course, a lot of important science is done and Antarctica remains non-militarised. The Treaty successfully prevented the Cold War extending to the Southern continent, which is a great achievement of international cooperation. But nowadays, more interest in the continents resources are becoming apparent as technological 'know-how' increases regarding how to extract them from such an inhospitable place. While the mining ban is indefinite, an amendment to the Environmental Protocol could become possible in 2048.

In particular China is often criticised for the word 'use' in their Antarctic and Marine policy and gets vilified by Western observers as the strongest proponent for mining in Antarctica. But so far China does not operate any more stations than any other nation and it is actually Australia's Antarctic division that is currently proposing the most environmentally damaging project: the construction of a massive concrete airport at Davis station that would increase the human footprint on the continent by 40%.

The project does not find much, if any, support from Australian scientists and Hugh Broughton Architects in London refuse to comment on it, leaving the Australian Strategic Policy Institute as the organisation pushing most strongly for the project.


In the era of environmental breakdown the planet is entering, due to the high emissions, over consumption and the plain refusal to implement efficient climate policy from governments like Scott Morrison's in Australia, there can be no space for any new high emission infrastructure in an ecosystem as unique and fragile as Antarctica – particularly not for strategic reasons.

The question of how to improve governance and speed up decision making has riddled participants and observers alike for years. While the solutions are not clear, leaving the Antarctic nations to find the solutions themselves has clearly not worked over the past decades. It is time the public saw beyond the smoke screen of empty words and praise for the Antarctic treaty system and started holding these voting nations to account: for the protection of Antarctica and everyone – human and- non-human - connected to and dependent upon it.

This Author

Carola Rackete is an ecologist and environmental justice activist, currently working as Antarctic campaigner for the Bob Brown Foundation (Australia) and in peatland restoration projects with Snowchange, Finland. She tweets at @CaroRackete.