With major international summits discussing climate change and the future of Arctic governance, it is now more vital than ever to consider two key facets of sustainability for the future of the region.
Climate change and global warming are interrelated issues which have dominated most of the world’s debates on environmental governance to date. Despite the planet facing more or less the same dangers as it did twenty years ago, including rising sea levels and loss of biodiversity; real shifts in concern arise when considering the impacts of these consequences.
Take for example, rising global sea levels. Whilst the initial concern was cities being submerged underwater, profit-chasing has conceived a silver lining from this. That is the use of the Arctic, especially the Northwest Passage, as a new maritime shipping route.
A deceptively attractive proposition
Seemingly, the new route is beneficial in a number of ways, all stemming from one key factor – journey times. Conventional belief indicates that the shorter the journey, the higher the profit margin. With regard to current routes, such as the Northeast Passage, this holds true to an extent. From the East to West hemispheres, around 15,000km can be saved in journey distance, if ships sail through here.
These 15, 000 km do not simply represent time saved, however. They involve savings on fuel, crew costs and represents an increase in logistical efficiency. Furthermore, it is even argued that in shortening journey times, emissions from cargo ships are also significantly reduced.
However, what is not accounted for are the additional security costs associated with the shorter, yet riskier, route. Examples include the need for icebreakers, additional accompanying vessels for larger ships and even the risk of drastic weather patterns. Therefore, theoretical savings turn into evident expenses.
The plight of the poles
Both humans and larger animals are greatly impacted by the breaking down of the Arctic region. This is due to the disruption of food chains whose primary species are often found near the Northeast Passage. Examples include various types of fish, polar bears, whales and seals. The most well-known ones, such as the Beluga Whale and Narwhal, are vital to the sustenance of the food chain.
The consequences of this degradation, brought about by the passage of large ships through Arctic waters, have spill-over effects onto human societies in the area as well. The Inuit, a group of indigenous people, native to the Arctic regions, depend upon these animals for their own survival. Furthermore, the rapidly vanishing ice sheets of the Arctic significantly reduce the land available for their transport, homes and subsistence hunting.
A solution, which accommodates all stakeholders in the Arctic thus becomes apparent. There is a chance that sustainability in the Arctic can prevail if international policy drew upon ancient Inuit expertise on migration, ice melt and the surrounding environment.
The only way this can be done, is through ensuring the Inuit have access to the appropriate channels which allow them to share vital knowledge about how best to address the issues of the Arctic.