Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Capitalism eyes up the Artic

For centuries, the Arctic’s hostile climate has ensured its status as “one of the very few remaining” unspoiled parts of the world, said Ashok Swain in Gulf News (Dubai). However, it’s also one of the planet’s most resource-rich regions, estimated to hold 13% of the world’s oil (some 90 billion barrels) and 30% of undiscovered natural gas reserves.

It has huge deposits of copper, lithium, nickel, platinum, and rare earth materials used in batteries and electronics, and offers vast potential for producing renewable energy using wind turbines. 

What’s more, the fast-melting ice there is opening up valuable new shipping lanes in the Arctic Sea: “the receding of polar ice may make the Arctic completely free from summer sea ice by 2035”, slashing journey times for vessels carrying goods from Asia to Europe. No wonder, then, that competition to gain access and control of this “yet-to-be-exploited” region is heating up with a vengeance.

Cooperation in the Arctic is meant to be overseen by the Arctic Council, comprising Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, the US and Canada, said Ott Ummelas and Danielle Bochove on Bloomberg (New York). But the council’s meetings were paused after Russia (its current chair) invaded Ukraine; and while they are in abeyance, some countries – notably China and Russia itself – are staking their claims to the Arctic more and more assertively, said Didi Tang in The Times. Moscow, which views the Arctic as its backyard, is determined to get its hands on the Arctic’s resources ahead of its Western rivals.

Beijing, which casts itself as a “near-Arctic state”, plans to use nuclear-powered icebreakers to establish a “Silk Road on ice” – a network of routes to cement its global superpower status. And now the two have struck a deal “to protect their strategic interests in the Arctic”. Details of this so-called “maritime law enforcement” agreement are sparse; but we do know that the Kremlin responded to Finland’s recent Nato accession by unveiling plans for “more military outposts in the region, including deepwater ports and airfields”. And in China, it seems to have found a willing partner in such an endeavour.

Beijing certainly has much to gain from this deal, said Dói Ennoson on Finanzmarktwelt (Hamburg). Getting a slice of the Arctic’s natural resources is tempting enough, but even more so is the advantage that opening a sea route along Russia’s north coast, and avoiding the necessity of using the Suez Canal, would give them: it would halve ships’ journey times between Shanghai and Europe.

You’d think Washington would be worried about the Russia/China deal, said Josh Caldon on Centre for International Maritime Security (Washington) – yet in reality, it isn’t that “interested in competing for the Arctic”. That’s because Russia has only a handful of ports that are “free from year-round ice”, while America is blessed with its own natural harbours on both east and west coasts.

And, being aware how high the cost of extraction is in a region that’s dark for half the year, it prefers to let Russia and China do the hard work of adding to the global supply of mineral resources, and let US consumers enjoy the ensuing decrease in price. Besides, now that Russian aggression has prompted Sweden and Finland to petition to join Nato, Washington feels it can rely on its Nato allies to focus on the Arctic. It now prefers to focus its attentions on more profitable domains such as space, cyberspace and the Indo-Pacific.

But what we’re forgetting, said Danielle Bochove on Bloomberg (New York), is the huge impact extracting raw materials is likely to have in a region so “critical to the planet’s climate defences”. The region is already warming “up to four times as fast as the rest of the globe”: loss of vital ice sheets, which slow climate change by reflecting the Sun’s heat, will accelerate this yet further, as will thawing permafrosts, which release CO2 into the atmosphere.

In short, exerting control of the Arctic should be viewed not just through the lens of “exploitation”, but through the lens of “protection”. We all need to be concerned about the development of deep-sea mining in the Arctic.

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