The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Environmental Protocol or Madrid Protocol) was agreed in 1991 and came into force in 1998, once it had been ratified by all 26 (now 28) Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (ATCPs).
The Environmental Protocol:
- commits the Parties to the "comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment";
- designates Antarctica as a "natural reserve, devoted to peace and science";
- sets out principles for environmental protection;
- bans all commercial mineral resource activity;and
- requires the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of all activities before they are allowed to go ahead.
The ATCPs have implemented the Environmental Protocol in their own national legislation. Some have introduced their own domestic law. In the UK, the Protocol has been implemented through the Antarctic Act (1994).
The Protocol contains six Annexes:
- Annex I: Environmental Impact Assessment;
- Annex II: Conservation of Antarctic fauna and flora;
- Annex III: Waste disposal and waste management;
- Annex IV: Prevention of marine pollution;
- Annex V: Area protection and management;
- Annex VI: Liability arising from Environmental Emergencies.
The Environmental Protocol also established the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) to facilitate cooperation and exchange of information between nations about environmental issues in Antarctica and to provide expert advice to the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM).
The regulations set out in the Environmental Protocol are mandatory and legally binding on all of the signatory Parties. Never before have nations agreed such a comprehensive and stringent set of rules to protect the environment of a whole continent. Further regulations, dealing with financial liability for environmental damage, are currently being negotiated.