Is the race for the North Pole and its resources a myth?
“To those on the panel and those on the floor, I encourage the conversation to be vigorous. This is a debate,” said Dominic Ziegler, Asia Editor of The Economist when addressing 100 diners aboard the Polar Ship Fram on the eve of The Economist’s Arctic Summit in Oslo this week.
The summit brought together over 200 scientists, policymakers, industry leaders and environmentalists to debate the big issues concerning the High North: the profound impact of climate change, the chase for natural resources, the emergence of new trading routes and the need for responsible governance. The meeting was intended to focus attention on the Arctic’s pressing issues and to encourage constructive thinking in the lead-up to the next ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in May 2013.
James Astill, Political Editor of The Economist, opened the event by saying: “46 vessels travelled the Arctic Sea Route in 2012 where the a few years before there were only two. This demonstrates how fast development is in the region, and changes in the Arctic will have global consequences. This summit matters a great deal because we [stakeholders in the Arctic] need to keep speaking to one another”.
And stakeholder collaboration was certainly one of the key themes that arose throughout this two-day event. The Economist’s special report “The Melting North” asserts that the risks of Arctic conflict have been exaggerated. Yet speakers and delegates alike stressed that the development of the Arctic will remain harmonious only if the Arctic states, including Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland, converse openly on all regional issues, both the challenges and the opportunities.
Oil and gas exploration and risk management
Sergey Frank, Chief Executive Officer of Sovcomflot, said “Nearly 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves are in this area”, but drilling for oil comes with hazardous risks, from the technical challenges of producing offshore hydrocarbons to the difficulties of cleaning up eventual oil spills.”
Henrik O. Madsen, Group Chief Executive Officer, DNV Group, stressed the importance of managing risks. He said: “The Arctic is a varied and complex area where there is no such thing as one-solution-fits-all. Strong emphasis must therefore be put on risk management and on reducing the probability for unwanted incidents to happen in the first place. Both risk-based regulation and innovative technologies will have to be part of such an approach. In addition, appropriate preparedness systems for minimising the potential consequences should a mishap occur must also be strengthened.”
If the Northern Sea Route is properly developed with investments in infrastructure, it could revolutionise global trade since it cuts the distance by Western Europe and East Asia by a third. The implications of this could be immense, re-drawing the global map of shipping. Huigen Yang of the Polar Research Institute of China commented that “There is special significance to China with regards the Northern Sea Route. It will mean shorter distances to Chinese ports and lower C02 emissions.” If true, that would be welcome news to many environmental experts. But the route still throws up plenty of challenges. Christian Bonfils, Partner and Managing Director, Nordic Bulk Carriers A/S, despite seeing the potential in the region doesn’t believe that it will rival the Suez canal just yet.
The ice-free Arctic
The area of Arctic land covered by snow in early summer has shrunk dramatically in recent decades. James Astill probed our environmental experts on the topic, asking Stefan Rahmstorf, Professor of Physics of the Oceans, Potsdam University; Ellen Baum, Senior Climate Scientist, Clean Air Task Force (CATF); and Rear Admiral Jonathan White, Director of the US Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change, for their predictions on when summers in the Arctic will for the first time become ice-free. Their responses ranged from 2023 to 2040—sooner than many experts until recently dared predict.
The Arctic, one of the least explored regions on the planet and also one of the coldest, is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The debate about its future is only growing.
The Economist press release