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Environmental Disconnect Between Global and Local Actors: The Case of REDD+ and Embobut Forest

Posted by / 14th May 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , , / -

The global environmental initiative for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) is unrealistic in its ambitions and image: various actors, including local populations, are divided on how this mechanism impacts their livelihoods and its utility towards global climate challenges. A case in point is the situation in Kenya. In that country, there are two clearly opposite perspectives with respect to the REDD+ project at Embobut Forest, and there is major disagreement with respect to dangers and opportunities. In order for REDD+ and similar initiatives to be truly effective, global institutions, governments and local populations must attain an agreement on the way in which they are implemented. Without active local support and stakeholdership, such mechanisms are doomed to fail.

REDD+ is a mitigation mechanism still being designed, and one that forms part of international climate change dialogue. Its principal aim is to reduce climate change by protecting global forests- the main planet’s CO2 stores and sinks- from deforestation and degradation. With 25% of total CO2 absorption occurring through forests, and around 15% of carbon dioxide emissions coming from changes in land use, there is widespread consensus that that global rainforests should be protected as a path towards climate change reduction. By maintaining absorption rates and reducing an important source of CO2, global emissions will increase more slowly, which will significantly contribute to anti-climate change efforts. As a form of encouragement, countries with rainforests that reduce their emission levels (coming from these forests) relative to a calculated reference, will receive financial compensation. As countries having rainforests within their borders tend to be impoverished countries, this mechanism is also seen as an opportunity towards poverty alleviation. With these goals in mind, the driving forces for REDD+ mechanisms are the introduction of governance reforms and institutional support, a monitoring system and the design of safeguard frameworks for possibly damaged injured sectors.

Lack of understanding

Many REDD+ initiatives all over the world face strong disagreements. One such case is Kenya’s Embobut Forest. The project was designed by the Kenyan government and World Bank, and has led to a series of displacements of Sengwer People, the indigenous people occupying the area and who have traditional land rights. These displacements are seen as illegitimate evictions by this indigenous group and their supporters, and as a necessary and well-justified step in the path for conservation and global climate initiatives by the Kenyan government. Another prominent line of confrontation is the usefulness of REDD+ as an actual way to protect forests and fight climate change. Kenya’s government has been accused of using indigenous forest lands for agricultural and profit-making purposes, which would of course be in contradiction with the REDD+ purpose and official public stance.

The principal reason behind deforestation in Kenya is forest conversion into agriculture. Forest degradation also occurs through unsustainable utilization, illegal logging, uncontrolled grazing and charcoal production. Thus, Kenya’s government identified the REDD+ project as a useful mechanism to protect Embobut Forest. This programme includes the identification of grazing systems and the implementation of a methodology for monitoring community engagement in forest management. Within this last strategy, a series of workshops were organized for local communities to educate them on carbon financing from a government perspective. In addition to improving forest protection, these actions are presented as a way to transmit management responsibilities to local communities, which would empower them and improve their livelihoods by “increasing the benefits of forests”. REDD+ mechanisms would therefore strengthen the fight against climate change through better governance of forestry lands.

The Kenyan government and other promoters of REDD+ mechanisms signal poverty and population growth as two of the main threats to national forests. With population growth and lack of access to biomass energy substitutes, there exists major friction in rural zones. Poverty makes people more dependent on natural resources, as they turn to them in order to cover their basic needs and extract economic income. This leads to more pressure on Kenyan forests. In addition, Embobut’s forest population has increased as a result of landslides and people fleeing cities after Kenya’s 2007-2008 electoral disturbances. These Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), just like the Sengwer, are seen as squatters, and a series of evictions were carried out to safeguard urban water supplies and to protect the forest.

In opposition to REDD+ projects, indigenous people and various national and international NGOs claim that this project is serving to illegally eject traditional occupants from their lands in the name of a fake climate change fight and with the real aim of financial profit. A major complaint is the government’s support in the eviction of the Sengwer, signaling cases of individuals being targeted and persecuted, as well as the burning down of their houses. From March 2013 until January 2014, Eldoret High Court emitted various rulings forbidding and condemning these actions. On the other hand, REDD+ opponents claim that Embobut project will actually promote deforestation. They accuse the Kenya Forest Service of having transformed indigenous forest into profit-making plantations and agriculture lands in the past, something which they fear will be repeated in Sengwer lands under the guise of REDD+ projects. They argue that the way in which REDD+ is being implemented does not only fail to contribute to the fight against climate change, it also leads to social injustices.

Addressing confrontation

Why indigenous people and some NGOs and ecologist groups in Kenya position themselves against REDD+ mechanism might be a mystery to its supporters, as they are meant to be the first beneficiaries or partisan of climate change and poverty fighting efforts. Clearer and more focused dialogue is needed to clarify different concerns and perspectives and find common ground. Agreeing that mechanisms have to be implemented to fight both poverty and climate change, stakeholders must first determine if such dynamics are really properly designed towards achieving the desired results.

One confrontation line- and thus need for dialogue- is the management of forestry resources and the potential displacement of people. While indigenous groups allege being unlawfully evicted, and governments and intergovernmental institutions arguing that this is necessary to attain better governance, poverty threatens affected areas. Nonetheless, government institutions also claim that REDD+ mechanisms will lead to communal management and livelihood improvements. It is crucial to clarify how the eviction of indigenous populations will serve to empower local communities and strengthen their position in forests management. And although energy generation and consumption is rather inefficient among the poorer sectors of affected populations, the lack of industrial behaviour and the small scale of such activities are insignificant to other sources of CO2 emissions, certainly when compared in absolute terms. Moreover, in order for the solutions to environmental problems to be supported by crucially important local actors, they should avoid social upheaval and disproportionate sacrifice. Truly effective measures require traditional occupants to remain actively involved and not be forced to leave their lands.

The utility of Embobut REDD+ project to environmental objectives also require further analysis. The problems witnessed in Kenya have also been signaled in other parts of the globe in which REDD+ projects are being developed. Kenya’s government and international agencies empathetically deny this accusation of generalized problems, but at the very least a clearer framework must be designed and monitoring mechanisms must be implemented in order to avoid unnecessary destruction in Embobut Forest and elsewhere.

The search for understanding

What is clear is that there is no unanimous support for REDD+. While large institutions and a vast majority of governments present it as a promising way to fight climate change and poverty in Kenya, wide sectors of civil society stand up against it and claim that it will have disastrous consequences in people’s lives and their environment. Evictions of indigenous groups undermine the fight against climate change, and better solutions must be found to IDI’s situation. Clearer forest management plans are required to guarantee consistency both with REDD+ overall objectives as well as with those of local stakeholders.

Climate change and poverty alleviation are two of the most important challenges facing the global community, and it is a point of serious concern why positions between people directly affected by these challenges and the mechanisms designed to face them seem so far apart. For REDD+ to work, governments and international institutions have to translate global ambitions into effective local application, and this requires much greater dialogue with local populations. Without this, indigenous peoples and other local communities will stand at the edge of these dynamics, eventually suffering the negative consequences as well as undermining the objectives of the project. It is still to be seen whether REDD+ can eventually become a useful mechanism towards climate change mitigation and poverty alleviation, as Kenya’s government and international institutions claim. Only the future will tell. Then again, when dealing with climate change, the future is not an option.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Climate Change? No, thanks.

Posted by / 20th December 2013 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: / -

The 19th Climate Change Conference held in Warsaw, last November, was held to start taking new measures on climate change by 2015. As has happened with previous summits, it ended with a minimal agreement to begin negotiations and outline the path towards global and binding arrangements on emissions reductions to be achieved, to be signed in two years in Paris. The conference demonstrated, once again, the unwillingness of certain government to combat climate change in any meaningful way.

By a quirk of fate, the start of the Conference coincided with the disaster caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The opening of the Summit was marked by messages of solidarity and support for the victims, and statements declaring climate change to be a possible cause of the disaster. In conjunction with the opening statements, there was also the event of the Philippines Delegate at the Conference, Naderev Saño, going on hunger strike until November 22nd (last day of the meeting) in an attempt to force real progress on the matter.

This time, the message of the Filipino Delegate was heard around the world; the image of him crying on stage was distributed by all media – but why did nobody pay attention a year ago, when his message was just as desperate? At the Conference held in Doha, Saño addressed the same audience asking for help to combat climate change through urgent action, especially considering the extreme situation of his own country.

The Philippines is the second most vulnerable country in the world to climate change, it faces an annual average of 22 typhoons. The delegate foccused attention on to the constant vulnerability and damage his society faces, but this core message passed almost unnoticed. The various sessions did not produce practical results, and thus repeated the experience of past conferences. Does anyone remember what decisions were adopted in Durban? And in Copenhagen? The answer is probably not, and no wonder, as very little progress has been made since 1992. Very few decisions were adopted during these summits, despite the importance of the issues at hand: issues that affect us all.

Climate conferences have been occurring since 1992, when the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro within the framework of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Since then, the most important landmark has been the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. That agreement meant that the richest countries committed themselves to reduce emissions by 5% during the period 2008-2012 compared to 1990.

The Copenhagen Climate Conference of 2009, was presented to the world as one of the greatest opportunities to fight climate change. That conference turned out to be a fiasco. No new alternative arrangements were adopted, negotiations were a mess and the media presented it as such. The expectations before the meeting were so high that it was the only one that had media broadcast almost every minute. Consequently, the failure was magnified. A single agreement was reached: the commitment of major world economies, not subject to Kyoto, to set some voluntary goals to reduce greenhouse gases. Needless to say that this was a highly unsatisfactory outcome.

The last conference, held in Doha in 2012, concluded with a resolution to extend the commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol until 2020. A number of countries did not sign, typically the biggest polluters: United States, China, Russia, Japan and Canada. Likewise, this lack of commitment trumped the Warsaw Conference. For the first time, however, the frustration generated was so huge that some of the participating organizations left the city before the official closing of the Summit.

It is clear that within the current system, the adoption of measures and agreements in the field of climate change is very difficult, if not impossible. There is simply insufficient will among participants. Also, the Kyoto Protocol advocates sustainable development through the use of non-conventional energy, thus seeking to reduce global warming. These issues are systematically neglected during summits, which focus on the adoption of agreements and commitments related to emissions of greenhouse gases, while ignoring more practical issues that are equally or more important in achieving this objective. Meanwhile, between conferences and conference, time passes and the consequences of climate change are worsening. Emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise, and those places where vulnerability is most severe and visible face increasingly difficult challenges.

Among those hardest hit are coastal populations, such as in the Philippines, who are increasingly vulnerable as sea levels continue to rise. This results in periodic flooding , making any reconstruction efforts difficult. But the sea is just one obvious example of what climate change can be and how people affected. Local communities face the problems first-hand, whereas the major global polluters simply participate in the numerous conferences.

By contrast, there some are countries, such as Peru and Ecuador, where states are taking steps to deal with the effects of climate change. In both these examples, national strategic plans have been adopted to reduce vulnerability in areas where the impact of climate change is strongest. These are exceptions to the rule.

On a positive note 190 countries met in Warsaw, but the aim of reaching an agreement to facilitate the next Conference to be held in Paris in 2015 is less impressive. Is it not more important to focus on taking practical decisions that empirically make practical improvements in the most vulnerable countries? Why are there no decisions being taken that are binding for the industrialized countries? The key issue remains the degree of commitment that all parties are willing to assume.

This was the main obstacle encountered by the various participants in the conference of Poland and for that reason, a minimal agreement was reached simply to keep the process alive. The consensus adopted replaces the word “commitments” to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases established nationwide by the non-committal “contributions”. That was the fomula that participants came up with to leave the door open to an agreement to be signed in 2015 and which will (supposedly) establish a defined limit to emissions for greenhouse gases.

That accord ended the obstacles that have hindered negotiations between rich and poor countries when it comes to sharing the problems of the limitation of emissions of greenhouse gases. The Kyoto Protocol only affects the developed countries and that is the reason why the United States refused to accept it, as it considers China and India as similarly responsible. For the same reason, the U.S. special envoy to the conference was not happy with the resolution adopted in Warsaw, as it does not accept that the more developed countries should take more responsibility for climate change and therefore, reiterated that the agreements to be signed in 2015 should be applicable to all countries, without exception.

In other situations, the US often positions itself as world leader, but interestingly enough, in this case, it refuses take up that role. It does not want to engage in the fight against climate change, because it may inevitably lead to it paying a higher price than competing nations, some of which are still developing economically.

Many steps must still be taken to fight climate change, but the clock is ticking. The climate conference in Warsaw was another failure where it demonstrated that the adoption of resolutions on this matter are almost impossible as some countries simply will not budge. For the first time ever, NGOs quit the summit and a special envoy went on strike. These circumstances should give notice to all leaders participating in such summits. Meanwhile, they continue to say: “Climate change? No, thanks”.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Lessons from the Wild West – the US’s approach to taming the Arctic

Posted by / 13th November 2013 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

How is the US psyche holding up to the prospects of a new and wild frontier? Climate-change is melting Arctic sea-ice at an astonishing rate. With it, a new frontier is opening with the prospects of rich rewards for those who access untapped reserves of oil, gas, minerals and green-energy or those who control new fishing, tourism, construction and shipping opportunities. To date the US appears to be a reluctant player in a significant economic and geo-political game, sitting on the bench as Russia, China, Canada and even Denmark steal a march on them. In order for the US to remain relevant, they will need to learn the lessons from their own past.

‘Taming’ the West

The entrance to the Harry S. Truman Library in Missouri is adorned by a vivid mural by Thomas Hart Benton depicting Independence and the Opening of the West. It is an interesting piece in as much as it captures an edgy tension at odds with the more pervasive, rose-tinted, national narrative celebrating the struggle of pioneering families against the odds of a harsh environment and a belligerent indigenous population.

History, it is said, is written by its victors. Having vanquished the indigenous people, global powers such as France and England and its regional competitor Mexico, Americans have a tendency to embroider the historic record of their Western expansion. The bitter plight of the indigenous people and the diverse environmental impacts – ranging from the decimation of 15 million buffalo to a similar fate for ancient hardwood forests – are relegated to footnotes in a story of conquest. For settlers themselves, their heroism is advanced over their plight. Just imagine how it felt for the 30,000 Forty-Niners who managed the long trek to reach California in 1849 from the East – leaving behind them a trail of dead compatriots whose bones liberally littered the unforgiving Nevada Desert – only to find that the gold that had enticed them was not much more than dust.

In comparison, the Arctic exchanges heat for cold and dust for ice, but also holds interesting parallels begging lessons to be learned. Of its many riches, the Artic holds 20% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas, and its Boreal forests are home to 8% of global wood reserves. The process of determining power and economic gain in the Arctic will have profound consequences for indigenous people, the environment and the course of global development and governance. In this context, the Arctic offers an uncomfortable truth for the US, unpicking the historical thread, revealing an unresolved past.

Old Cabbage or Cabotage?

Two examples seem to best illustrate the confuddled nature of US Arctic policy and languishing pioneer spirit. First is the question of ice-breakers as a barometer for wider investment in innovative Arctic technologies.

It should be remembered that success in the West was as much the outcome of the pioneering spirit as was the investment and application of new technology. Railways enabled Texan cattlemen to supply markets in the East via Chicago – a city of 30,000 people in 1850 having grown from just 12 families in 1831. Farming of the Great Plains was made possible by deep-water wells, the multi-furrow laying gang plough, specialised harrows, steam threshing machines and mechanical reapers and binders. Mining fortunes were rarely made by the early prospectors. It was big business that benefitted through investment in equipment and technologies for deep mining and efficient refining.

Ice-breakers, not tallies of nuclear warheads or naval fleets, are the means of projecting technological and political power in the Arctic. These highly advanced and hardy ships are more than ice-capable, at a cost of around $1 billion each, they are able to break through and navigate Arctic ice flows that lay waste to other vessels. The maritime annals are full of tales of timber vessels being reduced to kindling as a result of being trapped in ice, so too is the wrecking ball effect of ice on standard steel hulled ships. Their value is in their unrivalled versatility: keeping sea routes open, escorting convoys, coast guarding and military patrolling, rescuing ice-grounded vessels, acting as research platforms or as supply boats servicing polar research stations and Arctic rigs, towing weak or damaged vessels, and even iceberg ‘herding’.

The High Latitude Study presented to Congress by the US Coast Guard suggests that to fulfil its statutory missions it requires six icebreakers, but to deliver the continuous presence requirements of the Naval Operations Concept requires ten icebreakers. Currently the US has, almost, three. Of its two heavy ships, the Polar Star and the Polar Sea, both have surpassed their 30-year service lives. Polar Sea is now mothballed and Polar Ice has had its life extended to coincide with the delivery of a new ship planned for around 2023. The third US ice-breaker, Healy, is medium sized which limits it to, primarily, research.

There are three dilemmas for the US in trying to resolve this. First is timing. If the US ramped up their shipbuilding programme, given the ten year lead time, much of the ice will have disappeared by the time they are ready to break it.

Second is cost. During boom times the US chose not to invest in its 5th Ocean capabilities. At the time climate change sceptics had a stronger voice and the scientific community’s projections, when listened to, anticipated a slower rate of Arctic change. Now, in the time of austerity, getting ahead in the Arctic is all about the Benjamins, as U.S. Navy Commander Blake McBride suggests: “If you don’t have the budget or funds to invest in manpower and equipment then you don’t have anything.”

Third is US shipbuilding capacity. Even if the US had the appetite and the budget, the final hurdle to jump is the Merchant Marine Act, also known as the Jones Act or Cabotage Law. Protectionist in its purpose, it requires vessels transporting cargo or passengers between US ports to be built in the US and to be owned and crewed by US citizens. Coined the ‘maritime boondoggle’ on debut in 1970 (New York Times) the Act has failed to secure a significant US owned merchant fleet that could be commandeered in a time of national need – over 97% of cargo ships using US ports carry foreign flags. Not surprisingly therefore, US naval shipbuilding capacity is lacklustre, and the pipeline for building new icebreakers, without the option of sourcing elsewhere, is excessively long, not to mention costly.

Russia and China, meanwhile, are far less constrained and with far more of a pioneering spirit, producing ice-breakers like Dime bars. China recently unveiled the Xuě Lóng (Ice Dragon) and Russia has three new heavy nuclear vessels on order for 2017-2020.

To Ratify or not to Ratify?

A second illustration of confuddled US Arctic policy and weakening pioneering resolve concerns the question of territorial rights and whether the US should give primacy to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.

Stretching back to the early 17th Century a nation’s rights to seabed minerals were restricted by doctrine to a narrow strip of water tracking the national shoreline. This remained the case until 1945 when the US, under Harry S Truman, announced that it was to assume jurisdiction of all natural resources to the edge of its continental shelf. The US’s move was quickly followed by several other states eager to exploit marine resources. Tension rose quickly over fishing and mineral rights, pollution and competing claims. To deal with this, 150 countries came together over 14 years, with the aid of US leadership, to draft the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, completing in 1982.

In 2013, the landlocked, desert state Niger was the 166th country to ratify the treaty, but the US with its extensive coastline has still not. As a signatory, the US would have final and binding rights over areas of their continental shelf extending up to a maximum of 350 nautical miles from shore. The convention conveys rights that would provide a more secure basis than resting on the vagaries of customary law. For the US, signing up would mean jurisdiction over around 4 million additional square miles of Ocean –a sizeable portion of this in Arctic waters.

Reagan was the first to hold out on signing up – wanting a better deep-mining settlement that was achieved some time later. Subsequent Presidents have put their weight behind the treaty from Bush junior to Obama, but a minority Republican voice in the Senate has used the tools of filibustering to scupper successive legislative attempts.

These decades of delay provide interesting contrast with the acquisitive approach to land assembly demonstrated by the Founding Fathers. Where would the West be without the Louisiana Purchase that saw Napoleon sell French holdings. War with Mexico liberated vast tracks of land including Texas, California and much of the South West.

For those few but belligerent Republicans bent on abrogating the convention, their arguments boil down to an ideological resistance – not wishing to cede power to transnational bodies. Arguments that suggest that accession is not in the national interests have been dismissed by a wide range of defence planners. Admiral Roughhead, for example, specifically states the Arctic will ‘expose the costs of our national reluctance on the Law of the Sea convention and to test our present understanding of customary legal guarantees to the very freedoms behind our global operations today.’

Second term in office, post-Obamacare and buoyed by Republican meltdown over the fiscal cliff debacle, is this the time for the administration to act again on ratification? If it is not, what does this tell us about American hegemony and the health of the nation’s pioneering spirit? The triple Arctic aims of protecting the environment, upholding indigenous rights whilst ensuring wider economic security is fraught with difficulties. It requires strong political leadership that is prepared to grab the bull by the longhorns, or else, other stronger minded pioneers will get on with the job themselves.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Catching a Cold: Europe’s Exposure to Arctic Change

Posted by / 6th November 2013 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

Europe’s tendency toward policy dominated by concerns for the environment in the Arctic risks the perverse outcome of the Arctic being laid waste to unfettered global demand for new sources of commodity extraction. The boat to the Arctic has already sailed. Rapidly melting sea-ice driven by accelerated climate change means that the Arctic sea routes will shortly see ice-free summers, opening opportunities for transcontinental and local shipping, as well as resource extraction from the Arctic’s rich wealth in oil, gas, minerals, green-energy and fish. Europe’s policy inertia means it has caught a cold – too sick to capitalise on the opportunities of change nor able to protect against its more destructive tendencies.

If Europeans want environmental outcomes high on the Arctic agenda, as they have done to date, the best way to achieve this is by not assuming anyone is listening, nor by banging on the table to make people listen. If it is to have any traction, the European approach needs a degree of sophistication built around EU competencies and capacities. It requires a level of honesty regarding its economic and security interests whilst being more cognisant of its constrained powerbase. Here, China offers Europe some lessons. After a period of testing the temperature, China clearly found the Arctic too cold for confrontational politics. Instead China has geared up on the economic front, opening substantial lines of investment via Greenland, Iceland, and Russia that give it a direct stake in exploration and extraction. It has shored up diplomatic ties with emerging Arctic powers, in particular Iceland whilst having gained observer status at the Arctic Council. Finally, it is investing heavily in Arctic research, partly driven by its own domestic environmental concerns, but also to build credibility with the Arctic community.

Europe’s interests and influence in the Arctic are a little complicated. First off, of the European Union member states only Denmark, by virtue of succession seeking, EU adverse Greenland, is one of the five Arctic Coastal States (US, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark). However the wider definition of  Arctic Countries – that comprise the permanent members of the Arctic Council – swells European interests through the inclusion of Sweden and Finland (US, Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Finland).

The Arctic Council – although its early interests were rooted in collaborative research and knowledge sharing – is now seen increasingly as the legitimate international forum for considering wider Arctic issues and has recently secured its first internationally binding agreement for search and rescue. A proposal for the Arctic Council to discuss issues of security was vetoed by the US, but with increasing legitimacy and representation the agenda may still widen. Asides from the 3 European permanent members of the Arctic Council, the UK, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Germany, France and most recently Italy have observer status. Europe’s own bid for observer status, unlike China’s was rejected at the last session. Led by Canada, the EU’s protest on seal culling by indigenous people was cited as the reason, but also reflects a broader concern in some quarters of diluting Council decision making and increasing bureaucracy, an undervaluing of the rights and interests of indigenous people, and perhaps a sense that EU interests were marginal to the Arctic debate particularly given bilateral representation of European states.

Europe’s first big foray into melt-conscious Arctic politics started in 2006. At this time Arctic expertise in the assembly was thin, allowing a small group with Arctic interests or expertise to have a big impact on policy direction. Led by Diana Wallis, a European from Yorkshire, the group floated the idea of an Arctic Treaty for its protection, in part modelled on the Antarctic Treaty, albeit that the Antarctic itself does not impinge on sovereign territory. Wallis’ was not a moderate voice, far from it, steering a proposal for a shakeup in Arctic governance. In a controversial move, having no support from any of the five Arctic states, it was proposed that the EU should have a role in the management of the Arctic. The Norwegians took it upon themselves to steer the EU away from a course of conflict that would have resulted in greater marginalisation of EU in Arctic affairs. In November 2008, flanked by the Norwegian Prime Minister, the EU Commission President, humiliated in retreat, issued a joint statement that ‘as a matter of principle, we can say that the Arctic is a sea, and a sea is a sea’. In essence, supporting sovereign claims and therefore primacy under the auspices of the Law of the Seas. With that, any remaining hope for a treaty was dead and buried.

This difficult lesson at least means the EU has graduated class 101. With hindsight the European Commission now states:

As a matter of fact, the similarities between the two poles are scarce: while the Arctic is mainly an ocean the Antarctic is a continent. The Arctic has been populated by humans for millennia, while Antarctica is the largest uninhabited area in the world.

Following the demise of the Arctic Treaty in 2008, the EU has switched tracks, focussing anew on developing a less strident Arctic policy, but still grounded in environment outcomes. Since that time, at glacial speed, the organs of Europe, including the new EU Arctic Forum, have issued a suite of policy-like documents – none of them policies per se and most of them talking to future policy yet to be developed. Their overarching themes have, not unpredictably, been to protect and preserve the Arctic in unison with its population; to promote the sustainable use of resources; and international cooperation.

Five years on, cold shouldered by the Arctic Council and with the melt seemingly in overdrive, the EU is starting to see its policy objectives have failed. In 2012, the generally glossy progress report made to the European Parliament had one exception, a tale telling sentence that reveals a bigger truth and the hint of a change in direction:

However, given the evident speed of change in the Arctic, the time is now ripe to refine the EU’s policy stance towards the region, take a broader approach, and link it with the Europe 2020 Agenda for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth while continuing to support every effort to ensure the effective stewardship of the fragile Arctic environment.

Indeed, a speech issued by European Union on Arctic Strategy in April this year goes somewhat further, with the announcement of focusing policy on three components:

1. Knowledge – establishing closer links with researchers from third countries.
2. Responsibility – working with Arctic partners and with the private sector to develop environmentally-friendly, low-risk technologies that could be used by the extractive industries and the shipping industry.
3. Engagement – stepping up dialogue with Arctic states and stakeholders.

This smacks more of pragmatism and should be applauded. But, of course, the devil is in the detail and, in the case of the EU, the time it takes to develop it. Certainly, Europe is not in a position to match Chinese economic and scientific investment in the region. Rather, Europe needs to identify its own policy devices that balance economic gain with collective stewardship over the environment. Arctic opportunities are specific and many for which European companies are well place to respond. Research remains an obvious area of strength, but Europe should also be leveraging industrial investment in innovative green technologies that can support economically viable and environmentally sensitive Arctic resource extraction. Consideration of the EU’s role in promoting safe, serviced Arctic shipping, improving Arctic communications, supply-logistics and weather forecasting. Promoting European businesses with competitive advantages such as marine insurance and high value engineering. Supporting and investing in northern European ports so that they remain competitive and responsive to rapidly increasing throughput. Providing technical assistance and funding to support indigenous population dislocated by environmental change. Continuing to lobby for environment protection and conservation resulting from Arctic climate change as well as for new risks such as industrial pollution and accidents. To achieve these, there is a need for a pragmatic EU Arctic policy, forged with the right content and strategic balance, not simply a lament for conservation.

The interminable policy drag is a product of failed leadership in a bloated transnational system that is increasingly concerned most with self-conservation and least with the social and economic interests of its people and beyond. The failure in the Arctic is a microcosm a wider malaise, mediocrity and EU inertia. Now that we have caught a cold, there is no cure in sight.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Economics and the Environment: A Brief Review of Arctic Change

Posted by / 2nd November 2013 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , , / -

This morning, two news stories filled me with a fleeting sense of hope. Firstly, a remote Arctic Island, known as ‘Rat Island’ due to a mass infestation of Norwegian rats, is finally rodent free. Conservationists have been working tirelessly to exterminate the invasive population for the benefit of the indigenous inhabitants of nesting birds including puffins. Secondly, after their sojourn from storming Arctic oil-rigs, Greenpeace activists and accompanying journalists have had piracy charges downgraded to hooliganism by Russian authorities. What are the wider prospects though for the Arctic heritage to remain unchanged?

In popular European imagination the Arctic looms large as a pristine inaccessible wilderness, a cold inhospitable land of polar bears, fit only for our most intrepid explorers and scientists. From this starting point European sensitivities rail against the huge potential of the Arctic as a source of primary commodities to fuel economic growth. Europe’s is a tendency toward Arctic conservationism and a fanciful hope, like that of China’s too, that the Arctic should be considered, in a non-legal sense, a global Common. This imagery will be increasingly that – a figment of the imagination. We are witnessing an astonishing pace of ecological, economic and political transformation of the Arctic driven by climate change. The Arctic we know and love is moving to the mythological annals of history.

Change is coming apace. Already the annual average temperature for the Arctic region is about 1 ºC warmer than the recorded average between 1961 to 1990 and as much as 5 ºC above the seasonal norm for October-November. As the arctic warms, the scientists’ Arctic sea-ice dial is being constantly ratcheted down from rock-hard towards almost-slushy. In three decades Arctic sea ice covers now only half of its previous expanse. Estimates of an ice-free summer ocean by 2030 are now looking a little conservative with the latest data suggesting a decade earlier is plausible, in part explained by polar amplification and spurred along by black carbon deposits.

Polar bears and walruses are particularly dependent on thick sea ice. The polar bear is now listed as an endangered species and walruses as candidate species for listing. Decline in the population of several sub-species of seal follow hot on their heels. Moreover, subarctic flora and fauna, both terrestrial and marine, are migrating northward to compete with indigenous species that cannot rely on evolutionary responses to keep pace with the rate of change. Habitats are changing: coastlines are eroding and as the permafrost reduces, frozen tundra is reverting to swampland last seen some 50 million years ago. Arctic cyclones are growing in size and strength with local impact, but also being held responsible for catastrophic weather events across the hemisphere: flooding in China, heat waves and fires in Russia, severe winters in the US and Europe and summer monsoons and droughts in India.

Change does not end there. The changing climate opens the areas to economic exploitation on a grand scale – a new centre of trade and industry with a form not unlike that of the Mediterranean. It is not entirely fanciful to suggest that the opening up of the Arctic frontier will deliver the sorts of radical shifts in global trade and geo-political strategy that come only once in a life-time. Paralleling the Age of Discovery or the US’s taming of the west as an engine of its meteoric rise to global super power status. In economic and political terms there is a lot to play for, but as with great games there is also real risk, among them irreparable environmental damage, militarisation, and dislocation of indigenous people and their livelihoods.

Alaska and western Siberia already account for around 10% of global oil and gas production, the region’s production share is set to rocket. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 22% of the worlds undiscovered oil and gas, not to mention rich deposits of rare minerals and isotopes. Retreating ice; new exploration and extraction technologies; and transport access by sea make discovery and extraction real and increasing possibilities. It does not end here, the potential for hydro- and geothermal power, construction and fishing (as stocks head for warmer arctic waters) all add to a very long list of economic opportunities that spin out and will spur on the changing face of the Arctic. Just imagine the tourism opportunities: paired sailings of cruise ships witnessing the dramatic sight of vast walls of melting ice crashing into the ocean and strings of wilderness junkies trudging over pristine Icelandic glaciers in designer snow boots.

The question of sea access – the opening of the fifth ocean – of itself is of massive economic and naval significance. Reducing sea-ice coupled with supporting maritime technology and logistical support will lead to the opening up of new sea routes crossing the Arctic. The passage becoming accessible most rapidly is the Northern Sea Route (Russia’s preferred name for the North-East Passage) skirting the Russian coast. The North-West Passage, following the Canadian archipelago, lags behind, but remains a realistic possibility. In 2012, 46 vessels managed to cross the Northern Sea Route (NSR), and most recently, the Yong Seng, a Chinese commercial vessel followed the NSR, arriving in Rotterdam amid much media fanfare. The excitement was generated by the news that the voyage had trimmed 14 days off the usual time required for the route south via Suez. Estimates place financial savings per commercial vessel per voyage are in the region of $600,000.

In the long term, the reorientation of shipping from China via the NSR to supply the major markets of Europe bodes well for both economies in broad terms, with the prospects of cheaper products arriving more quickly. However there are winners and losers. Hong Kong marks the equidistance point between the southern and northern routes. As such the future of seaports North and South of this point look very different. Singapore, for example, may lose out to new ports developing along the Chinese coastline and in Japan. Likewise northern European ports such as Rotterdam and Felixstowe may benefit.

Politics and questions of infrastructure supporting shipping are also critical. Russian cooperation, ice-breakers to rescue beached ships, maritime policing, supply and repair stops are all part of the viability jigsaw. Also, there remain challenges to Canada and Russia’s sovereignty over the two sea routes. Much to their annoyance, the US and EU in particular continue to argue that the routes should be considered as international Strait. China too, in its references to global commons and the occasional broadside from an ex-sea admiral, may well hold this view, but prefers to supress it given a more fundamental respect for sovereign rights.

The assimilated view of seasoned political commentators seems to be shifting in regards to the Arctic. Whereas the trend a couple of years back was to stress the dystopian prospects of the Arctic thaw – a terrain poised to escalate geopolitical conflict – the pendulum, with some reasoned argument, swings now in favour of backing the prospect of a new Arctic consensus. This revised view is derived from a growing tendency for Arctic states to find agreement on some of their long-standing, sometimes pernicious, territorial disputes. Realising there is good sense in rising above the narrowest state-interests, there may be a move to avoiding escalating conflict and to work collectively to exploit the rich opportunities offered in the Arctic.

These difficulties and differences aside, surely this is good news for Europe, but the question is what is Europe’s response in making hay while the sun shines and how does this articulate with European environmental and conservation aims? The question of European policy, flavoured by our well-heeled and well-intentioned Arctic imaginary is important. It has coloured the EU policy approach without winning many friends. For those states or transnational bodies sitting outside of the Arctic inner circle lessons are being learnt, more rapidly in the case of China than Europe, about not rocking the boat if you want to get in on the action. To date Europe has been perceived as an angry child rather than a critical friend, with the dual impact of removing us from the economic and environmental spheres of influence. Europe needs more sophistication in defining its Arctic interests and related policy, if it wants to move from the imaginary to the pragmatic.

Returning to Rat Island puffins, the question arises as what is their long-term hardiness in the face of new waves of change arriving on their shores? As for Greenpeace, notwithstanding the vagaries of the Russian judicial process, jurisprudence suggests that piracy charges are subject to international law – the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas – and that there seemed little hope of a successful prosecution on these terms. Russia no doubt realised this, although appearing to have backed down, they have in truth managed to send a clear warning to transgressors as to the primacy of Russian economic interests in the Arctic region. Perhaps then we need to set sail on a new course for the European eco-warrior, hell bent on achieving the best and most pragmatic environmental outcomes for the Artic, by turning attention on EU reform. We need to look at our own institutions rather fighting Russian or Chinese ghosts. Batten down the hatches Greenpeace, were setting sail for Brussels!  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail