Nowhere is global warming felt more acutely, and nowhere are the consequences more dramatic than in the Arctic. Last year the summer sea ice in the High North covered about half of the area it did in the 1979 – 2000 average, equalling a loss nearly the size of India. By many estimations, the summer sea ice will be completely gone within a generation. Unfortunately, current governmental policies and bilateral cooperation have yet to address the severe climatic and environmental challenges of the region.
There is one regional body of cooperation in place with the potential to lead and coordinate constructive change: the Arctic Council. With courage and foresight, this body is in a unique position to get man-made climate change under control and manage the scramble for resources in the northern-most latitudes of our globe.
The stakes are high. The ice-covered Arctic Ocean functions as a protective shield against the heating rays of the sun. An iceless Arctic, where sunshine is absorbed by the dark sea instead of being reflected, will lead to uncontrolled, escalated global warming which will irrevocably affect all life on the planet.
Behind the rise in temperatures is the human dependency on fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has concluded that at least two-thirds of the world´s remaining fossil resources need to stay in the ground if we are to have a chance at limiting the rise in global temperatures. If we remain on our current trajectory, we are headed for an average increase of four to six degrees worldwide and a devastating rise of eight to eleven degrees in the Arctic alone. The need to keep fossil resources in the ground has never been higher, and there is no better place to start incorporating this principle than in the Arctic ecosystem.
For this to happen, the permanent member states of the Arctic Council known as the Arctic Eight—Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—must turn talk into action. These member states are responsible for coordinated conservation of this sensitive region, yet they are not effectively implementing the Arctic Council´s environmental policy recommendations.
Nearly all of the Council´s work addresses the effects of climate change and asks members to reduce emissions. But according to statistics from 2009, Norway and the other Arctic Council members emitted twenty-one times more CO2 per capita than the global average. Now is the time to phase out their oil and gas activities and proceed with the necessary transition from fossils to renewable resources. Instead, industrial interests and geopolitical posturing are leading to increased Arctic offshore oil and gas activities, shipping, mining and fishing—all at the expense of the implementation of sound environmental management policies.
Economic activity must proceed cautiously and deliberately. The only way this will happen is through coordinated Arctic-wide policy. To this end, the Arctic Council’s next binding agreement should delineate trans-boundary zones, some of which would be open for specific economic activity, others of which would be closed to commercial activity in order to protect ecologically vulnerable areas.
Unrestricted economic activity in the northern latitudes of the Arctic is especially hazardous because the area is engulfed in total darkness five months of the year with extremely challenging weather conditions year round. Today, there are no systems developed that can handle a major oil spill under these conditions. Simply put, the Arctic nations are not prepared for a spill. This is particularly worrying since an increasing number of ships are traveling through the Arctic carrying heavy fuel oil.
Constructive change in the Arctic cannot take place unless the Arctic Council strengthens its mandate for binding bilateral agreements. The Arctic Eight need to implement the Arctic Council’s environmental policy recommendations into their own national policies immediately if we are to tackle the rapid climatic and environmental challenges facing the region.
Fortunately for us, humans have an amazing capacity for innovation, the development of ideas, and effecting positive change. I firmly believe that the same qualities that enabled us to produce oil and gas through extremely complex processes will help us to ensure a safe and sustainable future for mankind and nature alike. This all depends, however, on the ability of the Arctic states to cooperate through established forums on curbing emissions and setting holistic and sustainable regulations for economic development in the Arctic. Time is running out for these Arctic Eight to take the lead.