Efforts to protect vast areas of Antarctica to get significant EU boost

European Parliament to support global effort to arrest biodiversity loss in critical ecosystem

International efforts to designate as a protected area a vast part of eastern Antarctica and the Weddell Sea, in one of the world's most important and vulnerable ecosystems, are set to receive a major boost with the European Parliament backing a resolution on Thursday.

It will mean the EU has reached an agreed position after months of consideration, and will be a strong advocate for designating the two marine protected areas (MPAs) stretching over 3 million km2 when world superpowers and signatory countries meet under Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in China next October.

Efforts to agree the MPAs, which would also play a role in helping to address the climate threat in Antarctica, have been stalled because of reluctance on the part of Russia and China – though there are recent indications the latter will now support the move.

There are oil reserves in Antarctica, while its seas are heavily fished for krill, used in cosmetics and to generate Omega-3 fish oils. Krill are a vital food source for whales, seals, ice fish, and penguins, and considered a “keystone” species that helps define the entire ecosystem of the southern ocean.



The European Parliament resolution originated from its environment committee and was drafted and tabled by the Irish MEP Grace O'Sullivan – the Green Party's spokeswoman for the marine. It backs a commitment of European Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen made last September. G7 countries recently called for MPAs in 30 per cent of the world's marine space by 2030.

“The approval of these MPAs would contribute to achieving EU and global commitments on protecting marine biodiversity,” Ms O’Sullivan said. “This would create one of the largest marine protection areas in history.”

The detailed resolution jointly proposed with French MEP Catherine Chabuad also expresses full support for efforts made by Australia, Norway, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, United States and New Zealand in preparation for the annual CCAMLR meeting.

This will “intensify their bilateral and multilateral efforts to secure support for the establishment of these MPAs in the forthcoming months, and in particular to focus on CCAMLR members which have expressed opposition to the MPA proposals”, Ms O’Sullivan said.


On the 60th anniversary of the coming into force of the Antarctic Treaty, the vote will send a strong message in potentially securing “the greatest act of marine protection in history”.

“Antarctica holds a special place in my heart. It’s 35 years since I first set foot on Antarctic ice as a young Greenpeace activist, so it’s a poignant moment for me,” Ms O’Sullivan said at a briefing.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament is set to also approve on Thursday the “eighth Environment Action Programme” on which Ms O’Sullivan was the parliament’s chief negotiator.

This is “system-changing environment legislation”, she said, that would be in place for the next decade. It addressed the economic and societal impact of climate change, ecosystem degradation and overconsumption of natural resources while placing great emphasis “the polluter pays”, she said.

It was ambitious around areas such as moving beyond GDP to a sustainable wellbeing economy, and finally phasing out environmentally harmful subsidies, she added. These relate to fossils fuels and in some instances agriculture where they are shown to give rise to harm.

Lead negotiator

The MEP met with commissioner for environment, oceans and fisheries Virginijus Sinkeviius on Tuesday to discuss the legislative programme. She will also be lead negotiator for the parliament when it is considered at European Council level in September.

“As someone who set out on a career in activism around climate, biodiversity and peace, these votes are momentous in terms of their potential, and the culmination of a lifetime of work in these areas,” Ms O’Sullivan said.

“We have just a few years to turn the ship around and get this planet back on a path to recovery. For that to happen we need protection and conservation and restoration on a massive scale, but we also need systemic change,” she said.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times