Global warming is melting the ice caps but there are fears it could lead to a new Cold War

Shipping times from China and Russia to Europe could be reduced by one third if vessels travel through the Arctic rather than sailing the traditional way – and many countries want to have control of the new route

Caitlin Morrison
Monday 31 December 2018 16:26
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Sir David Attenborough at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice: Climate change 'our greatest threat'

The risks posed by global warming also have ramifications for economies around the world as rising sea levels and extreme weather put industries under threat.

Flood risks create problems for housebuilders, homeowners and insurers alike while supply chains face huge disruption as new weather patterns affect crop yields, infrastructure stability and demand.

But there is at least one way in which climate change will prove attractive to business: as the ice caps melt, a whole new section of the globe is opening up. Areas of the Arctic that were once impassable now represent a gateway to greater trade, and in some cases put new markets within reach.

Shipping times from China and Russia to Europe could be reduced by one third if vessels travel through the Arctic rather than the traditional routes in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.

Trade via the northernmost part of the world may be some way off – a test voyage carried out by Maersk proved costly as the ship still required a nuclear icebreaker to clear its path – but interested parties are already preparing to defend their right to use the route.

Military activity in the Arctic has stepped up in recent years, approaching Cold War levels, according to Brigadier General Jeff R Mac Mootry, director of operations in the Royal Netherlands Navy and Commandant General Royal Marines in the Netherlands Marine Corps.

“It’s Cold War 3.0, it’s far more complex than it was before,” he says.

During the Cold War’s first incarnation, the Dutch navy worked with the British military in the north Atlantic. Russian boats had to pass through the region to get from Murmansk – the country’s only guaranteed ice-free naval base – to the south.

General Mac Mootry said allied forces are back in the same spots they were during the Cold War, and Russian presence in the region is increasing.

“Since the ice caps are melting we foresee shipping routes from Russia and China will go around the Arctic in future – which makes our position in the Arctic even more important,” he said.

“It will cut distance from Asia to Europe by about one third.”

In fact, this year a ship passed through the Arctic in winter without an icebreaker for the first time. The vessel contained liquefied natural gas.

Sarah North, senior oil strategist for Greenpeace International, said at the time: “The Arctic has already exceeded the Paris agreement’s aspiration of limiting warming to 1.5C, and the agreed target of 2C. In some areas it has warmed by 4C.

“Inevitably, this has caused massive changes, with most of the Arctic ice having already disappeared. And so now, ironically, we can deliver fossil fuels more quickly. It’s like a heavy smoker using his tracheotomy to smoke two cigarettes at once.”

The increased military presence is not just because of the potential for quicker trading routes, but also due to the huge stores of natural resources that lie beneath the currently frozen surface. Russia has already planted a flag on the seabed below the North Pole, staking a highly questionable claim to the billions of dollars worth of oil and gas underneath, which will become much more accessible as the ice cap melts.

A spokesperson for Greenpeace said: “The melting of the Arctic sea ice is one of the most visible impacts of climate change. It really should be a profound warning for humankind, not an invitation to oil companies.”

Meanwhile, General Mac Mootry says there was “increasing interest” from Russian naval forces in the region “like there was 30 years ago”.

He said: “We see more Russian ships than before and they also come closer than they previously did.”

With the world’s major economies ready and eager to cash in on this commercially attractive side effect of global warming, a lot of the reluctance and back-tracking on climate change pledges is thrown into sharper relief. The uphill battle for campaigners who oppose Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and Russia’s failure to ratify the treaty looks more like a vertical climb.

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But Britain has the opportunity to make a strong case in favour of striving for the longer term goal of protecting the planet. British troops are a key component of the stronghold against Russian encroachment in the North Atlantic, and as such have sway over other governments who want a piece of the Arctic pie.

That influence could be used to demand further commitments to curb global warming.

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