For the first time in February, a commercial ship (LNG carrier) traveling from China to Russia was able to complete the first mid-winter trip through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the Arctic Ocean. Historically, the route had only been accessible to navigation between July and November due to seasonal uncertainty. It has opened up massive opportunities for more efficient trade relations between the European and Asia-Pacific markets. Yet, this new frontier is the latest materialization of the increasingly visible consequences of climate change on our globe.
This development is significant because of the natural resource wealth the Arctic holds. Indeed, the United States’ Geological Survey estimates that the continent holds approximately 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and 30% of undiscovered natural gas resources. Hence, the opening of this new commercial route through the Arctic is likely to instigate a new geopolitical dynamic between important regional powers looking to exploit valuable resources. In fact, the geopolitical implications of this development are massive for regional giants like Russia and China. The opening of this new trade route opens up the possibility for important trade relations and opportunities.
Inevitably, further exploitation of the NSR through increased boat traffic will directly accelerate the long-term repercussions of climate change, such as the rise in sea levels and the likelihood of natural disasters, most of which disproportionately affect vulnerable communities in lower income countries.
Here, the main challenge is to prevent geopolitical conflict related to competition over the control of major shipping lanes as well as the ownership of extraction rights of valuable natural resources. In light of such worrying news, a new set of thorough restrictions on the further exploration and extraction of non-renewable energy sources must be implemented, knowing that further exploration could exacerbate the adverse effects of climate change.
The institution of such regulations is even more relevant when we take into account that the regional superpowers involved, China and Russia, are both authoritarian and reluctant to address issues of climate change, specifically when they intersect with issues of geopolitical influence. In fact, both of these superpowers are eager to develop this route, as it would facilitate the direct trade of oil between northern Russia and the major Chinese cities bordering the East and South China Seas. Russia has also been vocal about its willingness to develop the NSR as a viable alternative shipping route and expects boat traffic to increase exponentially in the coming years.
Ultimately, there needs to be an immediate reaction from members of the Arctic Council (nations who possess territory above the Arctic Circle) to join forces to institute a multilateral process and to develop a robust dispute settlement mechanism to avoid further conflicts and environmental degradation of the Arctic.