Parliamentarians from around the world will be coming to the Southern Hemisphere in 2021 on a special mission: To safeguard the future of Antarctica.
Sixty years after the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, the White Continent was again the focus of an international assembly aiming to manage issues affecting its future.
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I was honoured to be New Zealand's representative at the inaugural Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly in London last month (December 2-3), an event I also helped organise. I was also privileged to chair one of the main assembly sessions.
It was an historic opportunity for parliamentarians to celebrate the signing of the treaty and at the same time discuss how to address the challenges facing Antarctica.
The treaty was inspired: it was a living document that was simply written and that has stood the test of time.
But in the 60 years since it was signed, the challenges facing Antarctica have expanded: among them are the impact of rising temperatures leading to the melting of the huge Western Antarctic Ice Shelf and threat of land-based incursions (such as "blue grass"); pollution in the form of plastics, oil and, increasingly, pharmaceutical contamination from humans; pressure on fishing stocks; and increasing tourism.
Eight scientists from around the world were invited to address the assembly, including Victoria University's Professor Tim Naish. He talked about Antarctica's ice sheets and how they will contribute to future sea level rises. He explained that 70 per cent of the world's fresh water is locked up in Antarctic ice, and that sea levels have already risen by 20cm s in response to 1C of global warming.
His message was sobering: If we continue the way we're going, he believes sea levels could rise by 1.5m by the end of the 21st century. If that happens, 800 million people around the world will have their toes in the water.
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Another presentation demonstrated how climate change is already allowing invasive species to thrive in Antarctica, South Georgia and the sub-Antarctic islands.
Plastics, fisheries and tourism were other themes, with the Parliamentarians reinforcing international co-operation on pollution issues, including plastics, which affect the Antarctic environment.
We also talked about the anticipated growth in tourism and its potential impact on Antarctica's ecosystem. It's expected to increase by 40 per cent in the 2019-20 season alone, numbering about 100,000 visitors a year.
At the end of the conference, delegates from 19 treaty signatory nations – including New Zealand, China, Brazil and Turkey – warned of a potential global catastrophe.
A consensus statement signed by all 19 noted with concern "the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, which highlights the profound effects of climate change on Antarctica's ecosystems and the potentially catastrophic effects of Antarctic ice loss on global sea level".
The assembly was rated a great success by James Gray, the chairman of the United Kingdom All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions who helped instigate it.
He says having such a diverse group of nations and such a large group of parliamentarians coming together to address climate change in the Antarctic sends an important message to governments around the world.
We hope this is the first of many such assemblies and have already scheduled the next one for 2021 in either Australia or New Zealand.
• Hunua MP Andrew Bayly was New Zealand's representative at the inaugural Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly.