Polar politics and commerce
WOR 6 The Arctic and Antarctic - Extreme, Climatically Crucial and In Crisis | 2019

Polar politics and commerce

Polar politics and commerce
> As a result of climate change, ice and cold in the polar regions are diminishing. This is particularly noticeable in the Arctic. Here shipping routes are opening up and mineral deposits are becoming accessible, arousing the attention of industry. In the Antarctic, too, ever more countries and companies are pursuing commercial interests. Here, however, the imperatives of environmental policy have kept commercial activities within bounds up to now.
The Arctic and Antarctic as political arenas © Gatto Images/Getty Images

The Arctic and Antarctic as political arenas

> Historically, cooperation and willingness to compromise have charac­terized the political agenda of the polar regions. Since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, the southern polar region has been managed on a collective basis. The countries with a stake in the Arctic have since 1996 coordinated fundamental policy issues in the Arctic Council. Yet both dialogue forums face challenges as a result of climate change and global geopolitical developments. The more the ice retreats, the louder do calls for commercial exploitation of the polar regions become.

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An economic boom with side effects © Sergey Anisimov/Anadolu Agency/picture ­alliance

An economic boom with side effects

> The polar regions have always been rich in raw materials and natural resources, and have always exerted a great fascination. In the past it has been difficult to make profit from them because ice and cold has hindered access. Due to the dramatic changes in climate, however, the gates are now opening for gold miners, investors and tourists, especially in the Arctic region. While the Arctic countries view this development as an opportunity, scientists and environmentalists are warning of grave consequences.

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Growing interest in the polar regions

Perceptions of the polar regions have changed fundamentally in recent decades. Once, these largely inaccessible regions mainly attracted seal hunters and whalers. Now, however, in the wake of climate change, there is growing international interest in exploring the Arctic and Antarctic and in tapping the potential of both polar regions for various forms of commercial exploitation. Consequently, membership of policy-making organizations is growing, along with the need for more regulation and consensus. Some traditional polar nations are adopting a more protectionist stance, making the process of reaching compromises more difficult in the Arctic and Ant­arctic alike.
In Antarctica, which is under the joint administration of the Consultative Parties, the principle ­guiding all activity is to preserve and protect the only region of the world dedicated to peaceful cooperation and research. The Antarctic Treaty and related ­environmental agreements restrict the use of Ant­arctica to research, sustainable and now strictly controlled fishing, and tourism.
The Arctic territories, by contrast, fall within the jurisdiction of the individual Arctic states. These states have a legitimate interest in promoting the economic development of the hitherto sparsely populated regions. Most Arctic nations, especially Russia, are now giving greater attention to resource extraction and shipping, for the Arctic is resource-rich: according to one study, the region north of the Arctic Circle holds approximately 22 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas. Large deposits of coal, iron ore, rare earths and other minerals are also to be found here. The extraction of these resources will become more lucrative in future as demand for them increases and the retreat of the ice opens up access to the northern regions.
However, the very substantial resource wealth has also led to territorial disputes among the Arctic coastal states. These disputes have smouldered for decades in some instances and are still only partially resolved. The bounty of the polar regions is also attracting interest from distant non-Arctic countries, notably China. Such countries are attempting to secure access rights and to have a say over the future of the Arctic by entering into bilateral agreements with Arctic states. Their strategies further involve investing in resource extraction and greatly increasing their engagement in the Arctic Council.
Resource extraction is accompanied by an ­increase in shipping in Arctic coastal waters. In the tourism sector, the cruise industry is also experi­encing growth, with the number of ships and trips rising steadily. In order to minimise the attendant risk of maritime accidents, all vessels operating in polar waters must comply with the Polar Code, which prioritises prevention. Shipping in both polar regions is, as ever, a high-risk business due to the low temperatures and rapidly changing ice and ­weather conditions. If a vessel gets into difficulty, it can take a very long time for help to arrive, especially in the Ant­arctic.
A precautionary approach, combined with sus­tainability principles, must be the benchmark for ­these and all other areas of human activity in the polar re­gions. The Arctic and, indeed, some areas of Ant­arctica are radically changing due to climate change, and this puts great stress on local biotic communities and natural processes. Humankind must therefore do all it can to minimize its footprint in ­these highly ­fragile regions, not increase it through the reckless pursuit of profits.