The world urgently needs a comprehensive international agreement to protect the Arctic from environmental degradation and resource exploitation before the consequences become catastrophic.
The logic behind this claim is very simple:
1. We DO NOT need the oil and gas reserves of the Arctic, which are predicted to be very substantial, to satisfy our energy demands. Renewable energy sources have been shown by several studies, most recently a UN report, to be capable of supplying most or even all of the power requirements of the world. It is the Arctic oil and gas reserves that are the main drivers behind current plans by a small number of countries, called the Arctic Council, to carve up the region and its natural resources.
2. We DO need to preserve the Arctic’s environmental integrity. And I’m not just talking about protecting the natural habitat of the animal and plant species that inhabit the area. Very crucially, we have to do everything we can to stabilize the Arctic ice cap and reverse the trend that has seen it shrink continuously for the last decade and threatens to render it ice-free all year round by the 2030s.
The impact will be felt worldwide
The consequences of not doing this will be dire for all of us. All of us around the globe will be affected by the rise in sea level that will result from the melting of the Arctic sea ice. The reduction in the extent of the Arctic covered by reflective ice and snow will expose ever greater areas of dark ocean water which will absorb heat from the sun and contribute to further warming and melting. The melt water is likely to affect regional ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream, as well as atmospheric circulation, leading to unpredictable changes in climate patterns.
Quite bluntly, if the Arctic “falls” to climate change, everyone around the globe will be affected, which is why a guy like myself, who lives at the southern tip of Africa, about as far away from the North Pole as you can get, should be as interested in stopping the process as someone living in Canada, Russia or Norway. And it is also why we need a strong international treaty to stop oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.
No Arctic oil and gas drilling
The only people who stand to benefit from extracting fossil fuels from the Arctic are the very oil and gas companies who’ve been raking in billions of dollars in annual profits by selling us the products that are largely responsible for our current climate woes and for the fact that the Arctic ice is melting in the first place.
We urgently need a legally-binding global treaty that will ban all mineral exploration in the Arctic, that will place all activities in the region under strictly monitored environmental regulations and that will preserve it as a wilderness area for the benefit of all of us in perpetuity.
“But that’s entirely unrealistic and naive,” I hear you complain. Well, actually it isn’t. Such a treaty is already in existence in a part of the world that has many striking similarities to the Arctic. It’s quite possibly the single most impressive international environmental protection agreement in existence and there’s no reason why something very similar can’t be implemented in the Arctic.
A working treaty already exists
I’m talking about the Antarctic Treaty, of course. Originally established in 1959 and entering into force in 1961, it established Antarctica as “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” and has since been signed by 48 countries, including Arctic Council members Russia, the USA, Norway, Sweden, Canada and Denmark.
Added much later, the very important Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty has been active since 1998. It provides comprehensive protection for the continent’s environment and all of its ecosystems. It makes all activities, including tourism, subject to environmental impact assessment regulations designed to preserve the indigenous flora and fauna and states that “any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.” Until 2048, the Protocol can only be changed by unanimous consent of all of the signatory countries designated as Consultative Parties.
That sounds pretty close to what is required for the Arctic. A comprehensive international Arctic treaty similar to the Antarctic Treaty is neither naive nor unrealistic. It is imperative!
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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