China will get a chance this week to make good on its commitment to become a leader in ecological governance, with three new marine protected areas in Antarctica up for debate which, if successful, would be the largest environmental protection event in history.
China has opposed at least one of the proposals up for deliberation by the Commission of the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) for the past nine years, but environmentalists are hoping for a turnaround in light of a series of high profile pledges from President Xi Jinping at the UN Summit on Biodiversity earlier this month.
CCAMLR is part of the Antarctic treaty system which administers the conservation of the region and has 25 members including the US, Britain, China and Russia. The proposed protected areas – East Antarctic, Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula – cover almost 4 million square kilometres of the Southern Ocean.
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Xi told the UN summit his country would be carbon neutral by 2060, along with a promise to introduce more national legislation to preserve biodiversity, as China steps up to an environmental leadership role to fill the gap left by the Trump administration’s withdrawal of the US from international frameworks like the Paris Agreement, hailed as a historic climate change initiative.
“This is really the first opportunity for China to follow through on that leadership, and in particular to designate the East Antarctic marine protected area, which is the one that has been on the table the longest,” said Nicole Bransome, a marine ecologist working with the US non-governmental organisation Pew Charitable Trust.
“I think that would really show the world that China is serious about global environmental protection and eco civilisation for everyone, particularly in advance of the Convention on Biological Diversity that China will host next year.”
When French president Emmanuel Macron visited China in November last year, the two countries issued the Beijing Call for Biodiversity Conservation and Climate Change, which said that Antarctica conservation should be promoted and discussions on establishing a marine protected area would continue.
However, Chen Jiliang, a researcher with the Chinese environmental organisation Greenovation Hub, said he did not think these statements would necessarily translate into support for designating the marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean.
“Fishing is a highly important industry to China. From a legal perspective, China has continued to avoid external parties setting too many constraints on itself. For China, ‘fishing rights’ equal ‘ocean rights’,” he said. “China making this statement doesn’t necessarily mean it would support the proposal. The Beijing Call only said to keep discussions open on this.”
Chen said this year’s CCAMLR meeting schedule had been cut short due to its online format, reducing the allocated time for discussing the marine protected areas, making it highly uncertain whether a consensus would be reached on the designations.
China and Russia have opposed the East Antarctic proposal since 2011 and so far have not supported the subsequent two proposed new marine protected areas. According to Chen, Beijing has consistently called for a balance between exploitation and protection in the Antarctic, requesting more scientific evidence and seeking a specific duration for any designation.
One reason is krill – an important part of the food chain in the Antarctic and a vital nutrient for whales, seals, penguins, squid and fish. There has been a surge in krill fishing in recent years, for use in nutritional supplements and fishmeal, according to the Antarctic Fund.
China is one of the top three krill-fishing countries in the Antarctic, along with Norway and South Korea. The 115-metre krill fishing boat Shen Lan was claimed by its Chinese owners to be the largest and most advanced vessel of its kind when it launched last year, and it set sail for Antarctica in May.
Andrea Kavanagh, who directs the Pew Charitable Trust’s Southern Ocean protection project, said some of China’s opposition to the protected area designations had been answered by science.
“I think that, right now, they’re just reiterating talking points because they don’t have a political decision that they can move forward. All three marine protected areas that are on the table have the best available science supporting where they need to be,” she said.
There is a new urgency to the discussions with Antarctica’s first heatwave and the Antarctic Peninsula’s two hottest days on record logged this year. Setting up the protected zones would take additional stresses such as fishing off vulnerable ecosystems and build resilience to climate change, according to the Pew Charitable Trust.
Bransome was cautiously optimistic about the designation of the marine protected areas at this year’s CCAMLR meeting, despite the shortened time frame for discussion. “They have shown in the past their willingness to improvise and the fact that they are having the meeting this year shows they’re willing to be flexible. I think anything’s possible if the political will is there,” she said.
There has been consensus before. The Ross Sea marine protected area in the Southern Ocean – currently the largest of its kind in the world – was declared in 2016 after Xi and Russian president Vladimir Putin gave their blessing to its designation thanks to a successful outreach by the Obama administration’s secretary of state John Kerry.
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