It gives comprehensive protection to the Antarctic environment and its ecosystems and maintains the value of the continent as an area for scientific research. The Protocol also introduces an indefinite ban on mining activities in Antarctica, other than for scientific research.
The Protocol emphasises responsible environmental management by requiring prior environmental impact assessments of all activities, and brings together existing environmental recommendations adopted through the Antarctic Treaty system. The key article in the Protocol states that all activities in the Treaty Area "shall be planned and conducted so as to limit the adverse impacts on the environment and its dependent and associated ecosystems".
The agreement did not enter into force until all 26 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties had ratified it. This was finally achieved in January 1998. New Zealand's implementing legislation, the Antarctica (Environmental Protection) Act 1994, came into force in February 1995. The Protocol has 27 articles and five technical annexes. The annexes outline specific rules for the protection of the Antarctic environment. They deal with environmental impact assessment, conservation of flora and fauna, waste disposal, prevention of marine pollution and protected areas.
The environmental impact assessment annex outlines in detail the steps for assessment and provides for public review and comment, the identification and description of predicted impacts and the consideration of alternatives.
Areas of special natural or physical values, historic sites and monuments or special management areas may be designated under the annex on protected areas. Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) have been designated to preserve unique natural ecosystems or historic sites or monuments. Management plans are required for ASPAs which may restrict access or the types of activities that can be conducted in the area, eg. plant collecting and driving a vehicle. Permits are required to enter all ASPAs.
Antarctic Specially Managed Areas (ASMAs) cover sites where additional planning and co-ordination of activities is required, such as at popular tourist landing sites or around Antarctic stations.
The waste disposal annex prohibits some materials from being sent to Antarctica. These include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), non-sterile soil, polystyrene beads used in packaging, and pesticides (except for scientific, medical or hygiene purposes). Wastes such as radioactive material, electrical batteries, liquid or solid fuels and plastics must be removed from Antarctica.
The annex on conservation of flora and fauna controls harmful interference with native animals or plants and prohibits the introduction of any non-native species to Antarctica.
The prevention of marine pollution annex aims to reduce the impact of ship operations on Antarctic ecosystems by prohibiting discharge of oil, noxious substances, plastics and all other garbage in the Antarctic Treaty area. Food wastes can only be discharged after maceration (grinding) and must be discharged at least 12 nautical miles from land or ice shelves. Release of untreated sewage is also prohibited near the shore.
Annual reports are required on implementation of the protocols requirements and inspections between Parties are encouraged. If a country does not comply with the Protocol, an established dispute settlement procedure can be invoked.