What is this new Greenpeace Campaign about? Why has Greenpeace launched this bold move to make the Arctic a UN protected sanctuary? Read below and when you have done that, add your name to the Arctic scroll at savethearctic.org
The Greenpeace campaign
Greenpeace is launching a campaign designed to bring millions of people together to push for action to save the Arctic. That means creating a global sanctuary in the uninhabited area around the North Pole (the region some people call the High Arctic) and a ban on offshore oil drilling and industrial fishing in the wider Arctic region.
It’s an area of the globe under UN protection that’s off-limits to the polluters – a place dedicated to science and research. In the last century in Antarctica – at the other end of the Earth – something similar was declared when the mining industry was banned from operating there.
Greenpeace is campaigning for something similar at the top of the world – by making the uninhabited area around the North Pole off-limits to the polluters. We’re talking about the area sometimes known as the “Arctic donut hole”. It’s the area more than 200 nautical miles from the coastlines of the Arctic states. Right now it belongs to all of us. It’s classified as the high seas and the international seabed, but the Arctic states are submitting claims to the seabed, saying it’s their territory. They want to open it up to the polluters, so before the countries and corporations can get their hands on it, we’re going to secure it for all life on Earth.
We’re asking people across the world to sign on to our Arctic Scroll. Then we’ll take their name and a million others and plant them on the seabed beneath the North Pole and we’ll mark the spot with a Flag for the Future designed by the youth of the world in a global competition.
Hollywood actors have joined forces with rock stars, environmentalists, polar explorers and business leaders to be the first to add their names to the scroll. They include Oscar winners, Golden Globe winners and Grammy winners. Oscar winners include Annie Lennox, Fernando Trueba, Javier Bardem, Jeremy Irons, Jim Broadbent, Penelope Cruz, Robert Redford, Pedro Almodovar and Tom Stoppard. Golden Globe winners include Annie Lennox, Emily Blunt, Hugh Grant, Javier Bardem, Jeremy Irons, Jim Broadbent, John Hurt, Pedro Almodovar and Robert Redford. Grammy winners include Paul McCartney, Annie Lennox, Bryan Adams and Thom Yorke.
In 2007 Russian explorer Artur Chilingarov planted a Russian flag on the seabed beneath the pole and “claimed” it for Moscow. Wikileaks documents later revealed he was acting on the instructions of Vladimir Putin. There are several options for taking the Greenpeace names to the same place and planting them. The scroll will be placed in an indestructible pod so it can last for centuries, and will probably be lowered through the ice, through 4km of freezing water. How we get to the North Pole, who goes there, who lowers the names … we’ll discuss all that as a movement over the coming months.
The spot will be marked with a Flag for the Future designed by the youth of the world in a competition run by the Girl Guide movement and will be launched later in the year. We want young people to decide what this hugely important symbol looks like.
The Arctic states share a great responsibility to protect the Arctic. The United Nations Law of the Sea even gives special attention to semi-enclosed seas and ice-covered waters and calls for nations to co-operate to ensure that the environment is protected.
This movement is not asking for the whole Arctic to be declared a sanctuary – and we do not want a ban on all fishing. Instead we’re campaigning for a sanctuary in the High Arctic. That’s the uninhabited area around the North Pole – a place where nobody lives, an area that will come under pressure from polluters as the ice melts. And we want a moratorium on unsustainable fishing in the area of the Arctic not historically fished by industrial fishing fleets.
In Russia we are already seeing the oil industry’s destructive effect on the Arctic. The people there have had their way of life and their future destroyed by Big Oil. This must not happen in the rest of the Arctic.
As Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo has said: “The Arctic is coming under assault and needs people from around the world to stand up and demand action to protect it. A ban on offshore oil drilling and unsustainable fishing would be a huge victory against the forces ranged against this precious region and the four million people who live there. And a sanctuary in the uninhabited area around the pole would in a stroke stop the polluters colonising the top of the world without infringing on the rights of indigenous communities.”
There are several different possible processes through which a global sanctuary in the Arctic could be created, and a ban on oil drilling and industrial fishing in Arctic waters could be secured. The issue is not the lack of process; it’s the lack of political will. When world leaders decide the Arctic must be legally protected, we can make it happen.
It is widely understood that the current governance arrangements in the Arctic are inadequate to ensure the protection of its unique marine environment, and that reform is needed – particularly given the pace with which exploitation is occurring or planned, in key sectors such as oil and gas extraction, fishing and shipping. Analysis suggests that a new, legally binding, comprehensive agreement for the protection of the Arctic would be the most effective way to address these threats and that this cannot be achieved simply through reform or implementation of existing regimes.
Greenpeace believes that such an agreement should include a provision to create an internationally recognised “sanctuary” at the top of the world, which would be specifically protected from industrial activities. A new agreement on Arctic protection, including the creation of a sanctuary, could be created either by global agreement, or through a regional treaty that arises from and builds on the institutions and co-operative experience of the Arctic Council.
While Arctic states have rejected the idea of an international treaty of the kind that currently governs Antarctica, representatives from other countries (for example China) have in turn asserted that Arctic governance is a matter of global, not simply regional, interest. The first step towards securing better protection for the Arctic will be to highlight global concern and initiate an international debate through the UN on the options for new governance arrangements that can deliver on global priorities whilst respecting the rights of local people and in particular those of the Indigenous peoples of the region. Greenpeace intends to ensure that the public pressure generated through its campaign helps to foster this debate and to work with sympathetic governments and with Indigenous peoples to progress a new, legally binding governance regime for the region, with a global sanctuary at its core.
The campaign to secure a sanctuary in the Arctic will be long and hard. The first step will be to push a UN resolution. World leaders gather every September at the UN headquarters in New York. Greenpeace wants them to pass a UN resolution demanding global legal protection for the Arctic. That means persuading more than half the world’s governments that this needs to happen. A resolution at the UN General Assembly would create the momentum we need to push for an agreement to create the sanctuary and a ban on offshore oil drilling and unsustainable industrial fishing in the region.
The Antarctic Treaty and related agreements, collectively called the Antarctic Treaty System or ATS, regulate international relations around Antarctica. The treaty entered into force in 1961 and currently has 49 signatories.
It sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation and bans military activity on the continent. A recent important addition to the treaty’s implementation is the Protocol on Environmental Protection, which entered into force in 1998. This agreement prevents development and provides for the protection of the Antarctic environment through five specific annexes on marine pollution, fauna and flora, environmental impact assessments, waste management and protected areas. It prohibits all activities relating to mineral resources except scientific ones.
The Arctic is a unique and vulnerable environment. As well as being home to many species found nowhere else on Earth, the region also plays a critical role in regulating the global climate. But the Arctic is under threat – from climate change, from oil companies looking to drill in the dangerous and fragile waters of the Arctic Ocean, from industrial fishing and from shipping – all facilitated by the retreat of the sea ice. In 30 years we have lost up to 75% of the Arctic sea ice (measured by volume in the summer). As the ice melts, companies are moving in to exploit the oil and fish and are anxious to use the northern routes to shorten shipping journeys. This brings threats of oil and other spills, pollution and underwater noise, invasive species, overfishing and habitat damage.
The melting of the Arctic sea ice matters to everyone because the Arctic acts as the world’s refrigerator, keeping the planet cool. Burning fossil fuels that melt the ice is like leaving the global fridge door open. That’s because ice is highly reflective. Most of the solar energy from the sun that hits ice when it arrives at ground level is reflected away, safely back out into space. The open ocean reflects less of the sunlight that reaches it and absorbs more. The Arctic sea ice is acting like a sun hat, keeping the world cool – lose it and the world heats up faster.
A further danger is methane releases. There are methane deposits inside the Arctic circle, sealed in place by ice or permafrost, and also huge amounts of dead vegetation, which will decay and release methane and CO2 if it thaws. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas that has a short-term warming impact many times that of CO2. Recently, methane releases in the Arctic have caused alarm in the scientific community, although the lack of good historical data makes it difficult to determine how unusual this is.
Oil drilling in the Arctic
The US Geological Survey estimates that the region holds 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves, or about 90 billion barrels. That would only feed the world’s oil addiction for about three years, but at the expense of allowing polluting industries to move wholesale into the Arctic. We should be investing in low-carbon solutions instead, so our cars can be powered by renewable energy in the long-term and use much less oil in the short-term.
Shell is due to begin exploratory drilling at two offshore sites in the Alaskan Arctic in the coming weeks. If Shell is successful this summer, an Arctic oil rush will be sparked and the push to carve up the region will accelerate. Russian oil giant Gazprom is also pushing into the offshore Arctic this year.
Operating in the freezing, icy waters of the polar regions is incredibly risky and an oil spill there would be absolutely devastating. The oil industry itself admits that there would be very little it could really do to stop a Deepwater Horizon-style blowout in the Arctic, meaning that this unique ecosystem, and the indigenous communities who depend on it for their livelihoods, would be devastated.
And it’s only because of the retreat of the sea ice in the Arctic that big oil companies such as Shell can even get to previously unreachable areas. It’s lunacy that Shell sees the disappearance of the sea ice as a business opportunity rather than a stark warning to the world.
The extreme cold, the threat from passing icebergs, the poor visibility and the remoteness greatly raises the risk of a spill in the part of the Arctic that Shell plans to drill in. Some of these icebergs are likely to be too big to be towed away from the drill ships, meaning the rigs themselves will have to be moved at very short notice.
If a blowout or leak were to occur, it could take months for another rig to drill a relief well (often the only solution to such an event). If the leaking well wasn’t sealed before the winter sea-ice closed in, the oil could flow all winter, becoming trapped below the ice and possibly leaking unchecked for up to two years.
The US Minerals Management Service estimated a one in-five chance of a major spill occurring over the lifetime of activity in just one block of leases in the Arctic Ocean near Alaska. Such an event would be disastrous for the wildlife in the region. The environmental consequences of a spill in the Arctic environment would be far more serious than in warmer seas such as the Gulf of Mexico.
Shell does have experience in the North – no doubt about it, but there is a big difference between the North and the Arctic. By all the accepted definitions of the Arctic – whether by temperature, climactic conditions or by latitude, almost all of Shell’s “Arctic” experience has been 1,000km further south than its planned wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas this summer. Sea ice conditions – which constitute one of the biggest risks to Arctic drilling projects – are very different in the Gulf of Alaska and Cook Inlet, where Shell has had the bulk of its experience. In the Arctic regions where it’s headed this summer, Shell has drilled four exploratory wells in the Arctic Chukchi Sea nearly 20 years ago and conducted some seismic work there. It also drilled six exploratory wells in the Beaufort in the 1980s.
Does that make it prepared to work there? Not according to the US regulators. Shell’s spill plan for the Alaskan Beaufort Sea claims that oil would only “be released to a relatively small area of water” and uses a worst case scenario of 25,000 barrels a day in its Chukchi oil spill response plan over 30 days (750,000 barrels). However, the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) worse-case discharge for a Chukchi Sea well blowout estimates a discharge of up to 61,000 barrels a day. And in the event of an accident in an area where it has no in situ experience, things are likely to go very wrong. Shell estimates 38 days to drill a relief well in the Chukchi Sea, yet BP took 85 days to drill a relief well for the Macondo well blowout, much higher than its estimated time as operations had to be suspended several times due to bad weather. Bad weather in the Gulf of Mexico is unlikely to be as bad as it will get in the Alaskan Arctic. BOEM’s worst-case relief well operation in the Arctic would take 74 days for a very large discharge. And, according to BOEM, the chances of a blowout are significant: they estimated a one-in-five chance of a major spill occurring over the lifetime of activity in just one block of leases in the Alaskan Arctic.
A new Cold War?
A research paper has warned that the build-up threatens to undermine stability in the region. According to the report – Climate Change and International Security: the Arctic as a Bellwether – growth of military forces in the Arctic is increasingly designed for combat rather than policing.
The paper, published by the US not-for-profit organisation Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), warns: “Although the pursuit of cooperation is the stated priority, most of the Arctic states have begun to rebuild and modernise their military capabilities in the region. The new military programs have been geared towards combat capabilities that exceed mere constabulary capacity.” It adds: “States such as Norway and Russia are building new naval units designed to engage in high-intensity conflicts. While this capability may be understood as prudent, the ability of rivals to intimidate or subdue with sophisticated weapons systems could, if collegiality falters, undermine diplomacy and stability in the region
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