With temperatures warming and summer sea ice melting even faster than climate scientists' forecasts, the Arctic region has become a flashpoint and center of debate for international, as well as national and regional frameworks for environmental governance and development and use of energy and natural resources.
The opening of Northeast and Northwest Passages between the Americas, Europe and Asia as a result of warming in the far North throws a spotlight on debates and controversy over some of the most fundamental, pressing and contentious issues of our times: rising global energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions, climate change mitigation and adaptation, shrinking biodiversity and finding practicable sustainable development pathways.
Pitting the world's largest oil, gas and mineral exploration companies and resource-hungry economies against those looking to phase out production and burning of fossil fuels, protect and sustain ecosystems and ecosystem services, and stem the tide of what's been deemed the “Sixth Great Extinction” in Earth history, Arctic region governments find themselves thrust on to the center stage of geopolitics.
The Arctic Council: Thrust into the spotlight
Besides raising the alarm about the threats of rising sea levels, changes in longstanding ocean current, weather patterns and climate, and an acceleration of the loss of Arctic plant and animal species, the warming of the Arctic has also raised the prospect of shorter, less costly shipping routes between major markets across the Northern Hemisphere, as well as a potential, much-touted bonanza in oil, gas and mineral exploration.
Forty-six ships carrying 1.26 million tons of cargo made the northern passage from the North Atlantic to the Pacific last year, a dramatic increase from the four ships carrying 111,000 tons of cargo that did so in 2010, according to a New York Times' report.
Global energy demand is on the rise as well, and it has been estimated that the Arctic region holds 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil resources and nearly one-third of undiscovered natural gas deposits, Takepart.com notes in a news report.
Establishing a forum for regional governance and resolution of key, common issues, eight national governments (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US) in 1996 established the Arctic Council. The Council pursued its modest agenda – focused on fostering cooperation with regard to environmental protection, oil and mineral exploration, shpping, tourism and fishing – in relative obscurity and largely outside the spotlight of international mainstream media until global warming and rates of summer sea ice and glacial melting began accelerating in earnest.
Global in scope and scale, the economic prospects and environmental impacts of global warming, along with their inherent trade-offs, tensions and potential for conflicts, has provided the impetus for national governments outside the region to have a say in the Arctic Council's deliberations. As Takepart.com puts it:
“Until the Arctic ice began its serious meltdown just a few years ago, hardly anyone cared about the small group of nations that comprised the governing council that met every two years to ponder the future of the far north. Today, the Arctic Council, created in 1996, would seem to be the coolest club on the planet and every nation wants in.”
At its latest bi-ennial meeting in Kiruna Sweden last week, the Arctic Council voted to grant observer status to six nations outside the region: China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. The roster is telling in that European Union (EU) governments, outside of Italy', are noticeably absent while those of faster growing and resource-hungry Asian nations predominate.
As noted by TakePart.com, “China has been aggressively pushing it way into the region. In addition to sending the icebreaker through the Arctic, the country has been throwing money at Iceland and lobbying Norway hard to make sure it got a seat at the table. Similarly, India and the Arctic would seem an odd fit, but access to an ice-free Arctic saves its shippers more than 40 percent.”
Crucible for new regional and global governance frameworks
Granting oil, gas and mineral exploration rights poses potentially fatal threats to plants, animals and ecosystems across the Arctic, however.
Compiling “the best available science informed by traditional ecological knowledge on the status and trends of Arctic biodiversity ad accompanying policy recommendations for biodiversity conservation, the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), the Arctic Council's biodiversity working group, on May 15 released its “Arctic Biodiversity Assessment” (ABA)
Climate change poses the most serious threat to biodiversity in the Arctic, according to the report, which in turn highlights the competing, conflicting interests the Arctic Council faces. Allowing oil, gas and mineral exploration companies to scour the region and produce fossil fuels for sale on the global market is sure to prolong the use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions, exacerbate climate change and contribute to ongoing biodiversity loss, for instance.
"As climate belts move north, large parts of the Arctic may lose their specific Arctic ecosystems and biodiversity," ABA chief scientist Hans Meltofte was quoted in a press release.
"The Arctic is home to thousands of unique cold-adapted species, many of which are found only there. But with climate change and increased interest in the region, if we do not act now we may lose the incredible assets and fascination that Arctic biodiversity offers us all."
What takes place in terms of new accords, policies, institutional frameworks and systems for regional and international governance in the Arctic in coming years will go a long way in determining the success or failure of sustainable development and green economy initiatives championed by the United Nations (UN) and other international and multilateral organizations.
Fostering gains in living conditions and overall quality of life while realizing drastic reductions in carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, mitigating and adapting to climate change, stemming the tide of biodiversity loss, and sustaining ecosystems and the services they provide are the focal points of several existing and emerging international and multilateral agreements.
Prominent at the international level are the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the midst of being finalized and negotiated, the SDGs are intended as the core UN strategic policy platform once the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework runs out its course in 2015.
According to UN CBD executive secretary Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias,
"The assessment, which explores the potentially dramatic consequences of climate change and other factors that adversely affect species and their habitats in the Arctic, will provide critical information to policy makers on what is needed to secure the ecosystems and species that local communities rely on for their livelihoods. In essence, the report gives us a preview of what may happen in other parts of the world if we do not get serious about achieving the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and its 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets.”
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons