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Arctic Council – 20 years in a warming world
20 years does not really seem like a long time. But when it comes to climate change in the Arctic, the last 20 years have brought more change than centuries gone by.
After the warmest winter in the Arctic since records began, the sea ice has declined to its second-lowest level ever. And the “second-lowest” tends to divert attention from the fact that the sea ice cover has dwindled to nearly 2.56m sq km less than the 1979 to 2000 average. That’s the size of Alaska and Texas combined.
So the Arctic Council is celebrating its twentieth birthday at a time when concern over the impacts of planetary warming on the high north could hardly be greater.
I had the chance to interview Julia Gourley, the US Senior Arctic Official on the telephone ahead of the birthday. The US, of course, currently holds the two-year chairmanship of the body. I asked her how the Council had changed over the past 20 years.
“In the early days the Arctic state focused almost exclusively on environmental protection and science issues. But over the 20 years the countries have shifted the focus a bit. Certainly we still spend a lot of time trying to understand the environmental change that’s been going on. We spend much more time now on sustainable development issues, which in the Council generally refer to issues that affect the people of the Arctic, in particular the indigenous people. We’ve learned a lot in 20 years about the people who live there and the challenges they face.”
And those challenges are increasing all the time, especially because of the rapid pace of climate change.
Melting ice, easier access
The increase in human activity, as remote Arctic regions become more easily accessible has turned protecting the region into a whole new ball game. Gourley cites cruise ships, offshore oil and gas development , fishing and shipping as issues which have moved up the agenda.
Clearly, this means more work for the Arctic Council – and has also brought a lot more global interest in the region:
“We have 32 observer entities now, 12 of whom are countries. There are many more in the queue that are seeking observer status. What happens in the Arctic affects the entire planet, so countries all over the world are becoming interested in the region”.
With a big player like China taking a huge interest in the Arctic and looking to establish ports and secure its own access to the region, and political tensions between some of the Council members, such as Russia and the EU or the USA itself, the shadow of conflict always seem to be lurking in the background. Gourley is keen to play this aspect down. She stresses the key role of the Council in keeping the Arctic peaceful and encouraging cooperation. The USA, she says, welcomes the increasing interest by non-Arctic states – although, she adds, each of the Arctic states has their own views on that.
“We feel like we have a lot to learn as a group of Arctic states still about how the Arctic affects the rest of the world, and the more countries that are in the room listening to the discussion and learning from it and can contribute to it, the better. So we encourage non-Arctic countries that have particular expertise, to contribute to the work of the council – the scientific work, the technical work, economic work.”
When it comes to regulating activities in the Arctic, the Council itself is not a regulatory body, but it contributes expertise to others.
“When it comes to shipping, the International Maritime Organisation is the regulatory authority all over the planet. But the Council has a strong interest in shipping in the Arctic, and so the Council has done some seminal work on the Arctic shipping situation, including a very important piece of work in 2009 called the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment. That was the first time anyone in the world had looked deeply into the state of shipping in the Arctic in the face of climate change and reducing sea ice. That study is still cited today”.
When it comes to regulating offshore activities like mining and fishing, the Arctic states also have their own regulatory regimes, “ so it’s sort of a mix of regulatory activity by lots of different entities”, Gourley explains.
The US Arctic representative is bound, of course, to take up a diplomatic stance. But while she stresses the Council’s efforts to keep tensions low and foster cooperation rather than conflict, she does make one qualification:
“The tensions in other parts of the world haven’t affected the work of the Council. That said, of course we all have our own national views about a lot of the issues that face the Arctic. But as to working together as a group of eight countries, together with the observer states and NGOs, it really has worked quite well. We’ve managed to carve out a space that we can work in collaboratively. Now, that doesn’t mean that will always be the case. As things change in certain parts of the world it’s not easy to predict what could happen in the Arctic. But at least up to this point, we’ve been able to work together quite well.”
Presumably, with climate change having such a strong and rapid impact on the Arctic, there are bound to be increasing differences of opinion when it comes to striking a balance between preserving the Arctic as it is on the one hand, and on the other developing commercial and industrial activities. The US representative was quite realistic on this one:
“Yes, that’s a real tension. I think that chapter of the Arctic story is still being written. Each Arctic state comes at those questions in their own waters and their own exclusive economic zones differently, and each country’s regime is slightly different. So it’s hard to say there’s a single answer to how we resolve those questions. But it is something that is very real. It’s of concern in particular to a lot of Arctic indignous people, who want to live traditionally but also realize that modernity is moving into their world and in some cases economic development is very necessary to create good jobs and include living conditions. So it is a very real, very alive debate.”
Indeed. The Arctic conundrum in a nutshell.
Tackling black carbon
What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic – and pollution produced in the rest of the world doesn’t stay out of the Arctic.
While the UN has its own body tasked with combating climate change, there are other climate-forcing agents which affect the Arctic particularly strongly, such as black carbon or soot. The Arctic Council sees this as an area where it has a key role to play:
“Black carbon itself is not part of the UNFCCC, so it’s not part of any global regulatory regime. So we are working in the Council on ways to reduce black carbon emissions voluntarily. So I think that’s going to have some very positive results.”
At the end of our talk, I wanted to know whether optimism outweighed concern or vice versa when it comes to the future of the Arctic in our warming world. The answer didn’t surprise me. But the underlying sentiment that in spite of all the tension in the world and the feeling that climate change is gathering momentum and happening ever faster, we all have to pull together, is a message I can subscribe to:
“I think I feel optimistic in a way. Certainly, the melting that’s happening in the Arctic is potentially hugely problematic for the world. I think the science is pretty clear on that front. And it’s not going to change overnight. Even if the Paris Agreement is fully implemented right away, it’s a long time before the Arctic environment can stabilize. But when we have countries working together, if we can keep the conversation going, and we can encourage all of us in the Arctic and Arctic observer states, to work together to keep the conversation going, even if it’s slow, and to keep communication lines working, I think we do have room to be optimistic about that area of the world.”
The next 20 years are not likely to be less challenging than the last for the Arctic Council. On the contrary. You have your work cut out for you. Good luck – and happy birthday.
DateSeptember 19, 2016 | 1:37 pm
TagsArctic, Arctic Council, China, Climate, Emissions, EU, ice, Norway, Oil, science, sea ice, Tromso, UN talks, USA, Warming
Time to cruise the Northwest Passage?
When I came across a story about a sold-out cruise through the North-West Passage planned for this summer on a giant liner carrying around a thousand passengers, I couldn’t help remembering a workshop I attended in Tromsö in 2014, organized by the Washington-based Arctic Institute, Center for Circumpolar Security Studies, within the framework of Arctic Frontiers. I wrote a story afterwards entitled “Are we prepared for a catastrophe in the Arctic?”. The answer I got from the experts was definitely a “no”.
One scenario the experts had worked through made a particularly strong impression on me. It envisaged a cruise ship hitting an iceberg off the coast of Greenland. It was not a happy picture. More people on the ship than in the communities on land, not enough helicopters, not enough accommodation, too little medical capacity, in short a lack of infrastructure to cope, all round.
“A whole new dimension”
With the “Crystal Serenity” set to head through the Northwest Passage this August, I decided it was time to call up Malte Humpert, Director of the Arctic Institute, to get his view on the safety aspects of this – and the current state of shipping activities in the Arctic. He said this was a whole new dimension, with almost 2000 people, including passengers and around 600 crew:
“There’s varying challenges, ranging from ice flows to uncharted depths to unpredictable waters, and so the range of risk is pretty high. Of course one can take precautions like ice pilots, having rescue equipment, icebreakers on standby, but you’re still in a very remote area with very small populations, very limited capacity. So the larger these vessels get, the larger the rescue effort would be required to get people safely to land”, Humpert told me.
Just a few years ago, the Costa Concordia disaster made it clear to a lot of people that modern cruise ship tourism has a lot more risks than we might have thought. So what if something like that took place in the remote regions around Spitzbergen or Greenland, where cruise tourism has been increasing, or even in the Northwest Passage? Humpert describes that as “a very horrifying scenario to think about.”
The Arctic is not the Med
“The Costa Concordia was – half a mile or a mile offshore in the Mediterranean, one of the most frequented cruise ship lanes in the world, and even there it took over 50 lives. In the Arctic, if you’re looking at a ship with 1800 people, first of all you’re not in the Mediterranean where waters are rather temperate, and where you have calm seas most of the time. In the Arctic most likely if something goes wrong it’s not going to go wrong on a nice sunny day with 5 degrees Centigrade, it’s probably going to go wrong in really harsh conditions, and suddenly you have a ship with 1500 to 1800 people, most of the people probably elderly, in frigid waters. The largest communities are probably smaller than the amount of people on the vessel itself and even if you have a helicopter or two on standby, how long is it going to take to get those people off the ship?”
Humpert also mentioned an incident involving the “Clipper Adventurer”, which ran aground in the Canadian Arctic on an uncharted rock in 2010. Fortunately, it happened in shallow water, just about three and a half meters deep, Humpert says. “They had the fortunate circumstances that they had time to get people into rubber dinghies and get them to shore. But of course if you’re looking at 1500 to 1800 people, that’s a whole different dimension”, he stressed again.
Of course certain precautions can be taken.
“The Danish coastguard along the west coast of Greenland requires cruise ships that go into Disko Bay and Iceberg Ally on the west side to go in pairs. They have to stay within a certain distance of each other when they go into ice-infested waters , just so there is actually a second floating platform that could take aboard these people if one of the cruise ships were to get into trouble. That in my opinion is one of the largest risks. Yes, you can have all the equipment on standby, you can have ice pilots along, but if something does go wrong and you need to get people off the ship quickly – the quickly part is the problem. And where do you put those people?”
Too big to sink?
With all of this, the problem is the huge size of today’s cruise ships. The thought of almost a thousand people converging on a small, remote Arctic community is one I personally find most unattractive. (That is an example of the British art of understatement.) Humpert stresses even when cruise ships go into regular ports, they have to take people ashore in groups.
With this first trip by a giant liner through the Northwest Passage, he reckons all possible precautions will be taken. But if the voyage works well, the danger is that more and more companies will want to follow suit and send large vessels up there.
“Then suddenly we might have lower budget cruises that don’t take the necessary precautions. With higher frequencies of these voyages, the risks definitely go up.”
After this record warm winter and the huge decline in the amount of sea ice in some regions of the Arctic, my feeling is that people can be lulled into a false sense of security, when they hear about a “warming Arctic”. Malte Humpert agrees.
“Whenever people read in the headlines “ice-free Arctic,” it kind of makes it sound like the Arctic is now your local pool or the Mediterranean, suddenly. The Arctic is still a very harsh environment. Just because the ice is melting during the very short summer season and because of this “warming” – that does not mean its suddenly warm – it’s still a very harsh environment and you forget that small mistakes in the Arctic can rather quickly become very deadly mistakes.”
The highest risk, according to the Arctic expert, is that people forget that a cruise in the Arctic can be a dangerous endeavor. “If everything goes well it would probably be the experience of a lifetime, but small errors can quickly become insurmountable in the Arctic”.
Northwest Passage – international waters
When it comes to regulating shipping in the region, Humpert notes that the Northwest Passage is considered an international strait. That means as long as commercial vessels or cruise ships have international certificates of transit, they are allowed to go through.
“Canada can require that vessels abide by environmental regulations, that they take on board ice pilots, the coast guard can prescribe certain routes. If they see that some channels along the Northwest Passage have too much ice, they can require cruise ship to go a different route. But in general, the Northwest Passage is accessible to anyone. And of course the more activity you have, the harder it becomes to ensure that environmental regulations are abided by, that accidental spills or other mishaps don’t occur in the Arctic, and so its a very careful balance between allowing these first business ventures to head up into the Arctic and at the same time fulfilling these pledges we have seen over the last five to ten years that the Arctic is a pristine environment and should be protected”.
I am deeply concerned that climate change is opening the Arctic so fast that it’s hard for environmental protection and safety measures to keep pace. Humpert says it’s always difficult for policymakers to keep up in cases like this. But he is full of praise for the oil spill and search and rescue agreements drawn up by the Arctic Council. The question is whether the assets and infrastructure are there to implement them. Icebreakers???
The cheap fuel paradox
Aside from the issue of cruise ship traffic, international freight companies have used the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast in recent years to transport gas and commodities, reducing the distance between Shanghai and Hamburg by around 6,400 kilometers compared with the Suez Canal Route. .
Humpert’s Arctic Institute recently conducted a study on the feasibility of the Northern Sea Route for different types of shipping, compared with the other route.
The study includes a calculator, in the form of an online tool, and allows for variables such as vessel size, ice class, distance, ice extent, fuel price, average speed, NSR fees, etc., to give a very detailed calculation of what type of transport would be economically feasible. The tool illustrates how cost curves change depending on the amount of ice, size of the vessel and the price of fuel. The calculator even takes into account ship hull designs to calculate costs.
“In 2012 and in 2013 we saw quite a bit of traffic going through the Northern Sea Route, about 70 ships in 2013 was the peak. That’s still very small compared what goes through the Suez Canal, where we see around 16, 17, 18,000 ships passing through a year. What our study in cooperation with the Copenhagen Business School Maritime Center shows, is that the key factor is fuel prices. So if fuel prices are very low then those shortcuts don’t really pay dividend for shipping companies”, Humpert told me.
I was quite shocked by one fact he drew my attention to. At the moment oil prices are so low that a lot of shipping companies are choosing not to go through the Suez Canal any more. Instead, they take the long way round, choosing to go around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. Humpert says this adds 3500 miles to their journey and about 10 or 11 days of sailing time. It seems that they still save about 350,000 dollars on average by not paying transit fees for the Suez Canal.
The environmental and climate costs of the extra fuel burned clearly just do not feature!
This also has implications for the Northern Sea Route, says Humpert.
“You need special insurance, you need ice breaker escorts which are quite costly, you need to pay transit fees to the Northern Sea Route Administration. So it’s an interesting calculation”. The experts come to the conclusion that sometimes, for some shipping operators, at some time of year or in a given year when certain conditions are right, it may be economically feasible to go through the Northern Sea Route. At other times it may be more prudent or more economical to use the Suez Canal.
“Currently, the Northern Sea Route is a very specialized shipping environment. Very few operators have looked at it, and those that tried in 2013 haven’t really come back. Last year we only saw 19 ships go through the Northern Sea Route and very, very limited cargo volumes. It will be interesting to see what happens this year as we have a new record ice low in January and February. It could be that we are heading for that kind of ice-free season where two or three months of the year you really have a practically ice-free Northern Sea Route, which would start to alter the economic calculations. But the fuel price would certainly have to be higher”.
So we seem to be caught in some kind of a vicious circle. If the fuel price stays low, the Arctic will be saved for some time from increased freight traffic along the Northern Sea Route. But the price is increased emissions from the burning of all that extra cheap fuel. And that, as we know, heats up the climate further and melts ice, making it easier for shipping of whatever form to head into Arctic waters. If the fuel price goes up, companies will be keener to make use of the shorter Northern Sea Route. Unless there is some kind of miraculous, unexpected planetary cool-down somewhere in the pipeline, I can only conclude that increased shipping and the risk of a potentially catastrophic oil-spill or other incident in Arctic waters are only a matter of time.
DateMarch 24, 2016 | 1:31 pm
TagsArctic, Arctic Frontiers, Arctic Institute, Climate, Emissions, Greenland, ice, Malte Humpert, Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage, Norway, Oil, sea ice, Suez Canal, Svalbard, Tromso, Warming
Trudeau and Obama’s Arctic Endeavours
Sometimes there are pleasant surprises to end the week. An announcement by the US and Canadian leaders that they are joining forces to take measures to protect the Arctic would come into that category.
Given the US role as a top emitter and Canada’s extremely negative position on climate action under the old Harper government, this seems to me a very important announcement. Obama, unfortunately, is on his way out. Trudeau, we know, has just come in.
I was interviewing Frida Bengtsson from Greenpeace on the phone this morning about a campaign to keep industrial fishing out of the Arctic. I asked her how she judged the announcement. This was her response:
“I think it shows some good, clear leadership on Arctic protection. Now it’s up to the implementation. We’re hoping they will set the bar really high on protection and that fishing will be included and that areas of the Arctic will be off limits to any industrial activity, including oil and gas.”
As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
In the background, the two countries have pledged to sign the Paris climate deal “as soon as feasible”. Hm. That sounds a little wishy-washy to me. But they also say they want to improve cooperation on energy issues. If it means cutting emissions rather than building something like the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline to bring heavy Canadian oil to the US, it’s extremely good news for the climate. Obama rejected the project last year. It was promoted by Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper.
Canada and the USA have now committed to cut emissions of methane by 40 to 50 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. Given that methane is around 20 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, that is an important step. The oil and gas industry is the single largest source of methane emissions in the US and globally. Obama and Trudeau also announced they plan steps to fight climate change in the Arctic, and to speed development of green technologies.
The US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA is to start developing regulations for methane emissions from existing oil and gas sources immediately and “move as expeditiously as possible to complete this process”. Obama has made extensive use of the EPA during his time in office, in his attempt to combat opposition to his pro-environment and climate moves from Republicans.
Last month the US Supreme Court ruled to delay the implementation of Obama’s Clean Power Plan to fight emissions from power plants. But the President says the plan to cut methane emissions is on secure legal grounds.
In the Arctic, the countries agreed to set standards on shipping, fishing and oil and gas exploration and development, and to base decisions on scientific evidence. Development is only to occur “when the highest safety and environmental standards are met”.
In the Washington Post, mark Brownstein, vice president of climate and energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the proposed cut in methane emissions would be like “closing a third of the world’s coal plants”.
“This is arguably the single biggest, most impactful, most immediate thing we can do to slow the rate of warming right now”, Brownstein said.
Obama and Trudeau pledged to safeguard the Arctic with initiatives to protect more than 10 percent of the marine areas, designate shipping corridors with low environmental impact, and establish new offshore oil and gas leasing plans.
Clearly, both governments are recognizing the Arctic as a priority. Of course full Arctic protection requires action by other Arctic nations, like Russia, Denmark and Norway.
Increasing industrial activity in the Arctic brings an increased risk of potential collisions, oil spills, pollution, black carbon and underwater noise to disturb wildlife.
This joint announcement is a clear demonstration of how much political leadership can do when it comes to climate issues,and just how important is to have people in power who understand what drives climate change and why it is dangerous, and are willing to commit to climate action in the face of opposition from fossil-fuel-based industries, demonstrating at the same time that climate protection is actually good for the economy.
I interviewed Alexander Ochs, Senior Director for Climate and Energy at the Worldwatch Institute recently about implementing the Paris Agreement and the “Energiewende”, the transition to renewable energy. We also discussed the US position on climate.
“If we talk about the US, there is not one US player. Unlike many other countries where there is a consensus across parties, across people of different ideologies, that does not exist in the US, it’s a highly partisan issue. Candidates for presidency and US congress take positions almost exactly along party lines.”
Clearly, the result of the US presidential election will have major implications for climate action.
“The results of the elections on the federal level, as well as their impact on international cooperation on climate and energy, will be very dramatic. Having said that, even under Republican leadership, – which would have dramatic impacts – there will be many actors in the United States that will continue their action on the ground. Whether it’s municipalities or cities –more than a thousand mayors are supporting the Kyoto goals for example, widely unnoticed by Europeans – or on the state level, or individuals. So you do see a lot of things happening on the ground in the United States, so it’s often unfair to these people if we reduce the US to the presidency.”
That is an encouraging thought. Leadership is essential. But so, too, is action from the bottom up.
DateMarch 11, 2016 | 3:29 pm
TagsArctic, Canada, Climate, Emissions, Greenpeace, ice, Norway, Obama, Oil, Russia, Svalbard, Trudeau, USA, Warming
Paris: A COP-out for Arctic Peoples?
As I write, the climate negotiations have been extended into Saturday. Same procedure as every year? While I still hope the seemingly never-ending bickering will result in a document which will at least signal the end of the fossil fuels era, I cannot help feeling a sense of sadness and regret, that this is all way too late for the Arctic, as I discussed in the last blog post. And I wonder how all this feels to indigenous folk living in the High North, as they see their traditional lifestyles melting away.
On a recent edition of DW’s Living Planet programme, Lakeidra Chavis reported on the effect of melting permafrost on indigenous communities in Alaska. Chatting to a colleague in between times about the story, she told me how moved she was to hear how skulls had been washed up in a river as the permafrost at a burial site thawed.
Climate change impacts the present, future – and past
I had a kind of déjà vu feeling. Back in 2008, in those early days of the Ice Blog, I travelled out to Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the USA, with archaeologist Anne Jensen. We visited the site where a village had had to be re-located because of coastal erosion, with melting permafrost and dwinding sea ice. She told me how she was called up by distraught locals in the middle of the night and asked to help recover the remains of their ancestors before they were washed into the ocean. My colleague here in Bonn was surprised to hear that I had conducted that interview back in 2008. How could this have been known at that time already, yet so little publicized?
Victims or culprits?
While a lot of attention is focused (and rightly so) on the impacts on developing countries, Asia, Africa, rising sea levels, this is an issue a lot of people know very little about. In an article for Cryopolitics Mia Bennet puts her finger on an interesting aspect of all this. The Arctic indigenous peoples are living in industrialized, developed states. That gives them an interesting status, somewhere between being victims and perpetrators of climate warming.
“A discourse of victimization pervades much Western reporting on the Arctic”, she writes. A lot of people in the region tend to blame countries outside the region for climate change. She quotes a study in Nature Climate Change in which researchers found that emissions from Asian countries are the largest single contributor to Arctic warming. But she notes that gas flaring emissions in Russia and forest fires and gas flaring emissions in the Nordic countries are the second two biggest contributors. And these industries are often supported by locals, not least because of the jobs and prosperity they bring.
This brings me back to some encounters I had during that trip to Alaska in 2008 – and others since, with Inuit people employed in the oil sector. They were reluctant to accept that the industries that provided their livelihoods could ultimately be literally eroding the basis of their cultures. Russia, the USA, Canada, Norway – are all countries involved in oil and gas exploitation. Some northern regions are highly dependent on the industries which are warming the climate.
“And for their part, Arctic countries must realize that reducing emissions begins at home on the region’s heavily polluting oil platforms and gas flaring stacks – not in Paris”, says Mia Bennet.
All up to Paris?
The sad truth is that even the two-degree target – or the 1.5 currently being debated – will not have much of an impact on Arctic warming.
Mia Bennet puts it bluntly. “Regardless of whether a positive or negative outcome is reached in Paris at COP 21, it will not dramatically affect the Arctic.”
A delegation of indigenous leaders from the Arctic countries is in Paris at the talks. Both the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Saami Council have sent delegates, with the aim of highlighting the consequences of a warming climate for the polar regions.
Council representatives are from three distinct Inuit regions: Canada, the USA and Greenland. The Chukotka region of Russia also has a substantial Inuit population, who are not directly represented in Paris, but belong to the Council. The Saami Council has representatives from Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden. Both sets of delegates are attending as observers, without voting rights.
In a position paper, Inuit Circumpolar Council Chair Okalik Eegeesiak of Canada stresses the Inuit’s deep concern about the impacts of climate change on their cultural, social and economic health.
She describes the Arctic’s sensitive ecosystem as a “canary in the coal mine for global change”. Following that metaphor, the canary must be close to suffocating.
The Inuit representatives in Paris are appealing for stronger measures to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C. They stress that the land and sea sustain their culture and wildlife, “on which we depend for food security, daily nutrition and overall cultural integrity”.
But ultimately, in a world where altruism seldom plays a part, it may be their other argument – the role of the Arctic in influencing the global climate system – that convinces negotiators of the need to work against global warming. With increasing knowledge and awareness of the extent to which the Arctic influences global processes and thus weather and climate all over the globe, the willingness to take measures to prevent further deterioration of the cryosphere is likely to increase. Whether it will be in time is another question. Any negotiator in Paris who has taken a brief moment off to read this – remember, we are not talking about a remote region with a small population. We are all in this together.
DateDecember 11, 2015 | 2:51 pm
TagsAlaska, Arctic, Barrow, Climate, Climate Change College, COP21, Greenland, Greenpeace, ice, Oil, Paris, permafrost, sea ice, snow, UN talks, Warming
“People power”, Shell and the Arctic
This week’s announcement that Shell is abandoning its controversial Arctic oil exploration for the “foreseeable future” provoked a wide spectrum of reactions – from disappointment, especially amongst politicians in Alaska, to the rejoicing of the environment campaigners.
Shell cites disappointing results, high operating costs – and an “unpredictable” regulatory environment as the reasons for the change in policy. The latter is the interesting one. Behind it lies an unmentioned but tangible ongoing shift in politics and society.
The tightening up of environment regulations in the USA is but one sign of the growing awareness that resources are limited, fossil fuels are harming the climate, and growth at the cost of environmental destruction is no longer acceptable.
Environment campaigners have run a highly visible and successful campaign drawing attention to the risks of oil drilling for one of the world’s last remaining pristine regions, which is also one of the most dangerous because of low temperature, ice and poor visibility.
Greenpeace has been campaigning online and around the globe to stop Arctic oil drilling. This summer, kayakers staged spectacular protests in Seattle against Shell’s Arctic drilling plans.
Critics have succeeded in increasing awareness of the paradox behind the increasing accessibility of the Arctic to oil and gas exploration. Warming through increased CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is melting the Arctic ice. Exploiting that harm humankind has done to the environment with a view to extracting more oil -which in turn would cause further damage to the climate and the planet we live on – is cynical at best, self-destructive at worst.
Reputation at stake
All this is harmful to the image of Royal Dutch Shell. The Guardian quotes Greenpeace Arctic campaigner Ben Ayliffe:
“It is undeniable that the protests were a factor in Shell’s decision because the Arctic had become a defining environmental story”.
The paper quotes “company sources” as accepting that Arctic oil damaged the firm. “We were acutely aware of the reputational element to this programme”.
Shell had invested around seven billion US dollars in its Alaskan operations. But investors are worried about whether the company’s business models can hold against international climate protection goals.
Not the last word
The decision does not mean Shell will stay out of the region for good. Nor is it the end of oil exploration in the Arctic in general. BP’s Prudhoe Bay field and Gazprom’s Prirazlomnoye platform in the Pechora Sea – the object of the spectacular Greenpeace protests and Russian seizure of the organization’s boat and crew in 2013 – remain.
Nevertheless, Shell’s decision has to be a milestone in the ongoing struggle to protect the environment and halt climate change through a switch to renewable energies. Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo told journalists:
“It’s time to make the Arctic ocean off limits to all oil companies. This may be the best chance we get to create permanent protection for the Arctic and make the switch to renewable energy instead. If we are serious about dealing with climate change we will need to completely change our current way of thinking. Drilling in the melting Arctic is not compatible with this shift.”
This week I interviewed German climate expert Mojib Latif, who is being awarded a key European Environment prize for his tireless efforts to inform people about the risks of climate warming and the need to decarbonize the economy. His key message was that we have the technology to make a real difference. But it will only work if people take that to heart and don’t leave it up to the politicians, he says.
Shell’s departure from Alaska shows what “people power” can do.
DateOctober 2, 2015 | 9:29 am