UN Secretary General addresses Arctic Circle: "There's no Planet B"

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United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the press conference following this speech to the Arctic Circle assembly, with former Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson in the background. Photo: Mia Bennett/Cryopolitics

Yesterday at the Arctic Circle conference in Iceland’s booming capital, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accepted the first-ever Arctic Prize from the country’s former president, Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson, for his leadership in international climate diplomacy.

In a conference where presenters speak in excited volumes about the potential for Arctic development, Ban Ki-moon called the region “a place where see promise and peril in close proximity.” He spent most of his 20-minute speech drawing attention to the threat of climate change. In front of a packed auditorium with attendees from over 40 countries, he expressed, “Arctic melting affects Miami, Mumbai, Shanghai, coastal cities – and so much else. When the Arctic suffers, the world feels the pain.”

The outgoing Secretary General drew on his personal observations of melting glaciers in Iceland, Svalbard, and Greenland and the wealth of scientific research on climate change to convey the urgency and scale of the problem. “The Arctic is melting before our eyes,” he noted. “In a single day last month, the Arctic melted at three times its normal rate. In three days, it lost ice the size of England.”

Apocalyptically, he warned: “There’s no Plan B because there’s no Planet B.”

But overall, Ban Ki-moon was optimistic about the ability for the world’s nations to combat climate change. He stressed the importance of the COP 21 agreement reached in Paris last December, which 197 parties have now signed. “The Paris Agreement is an agreement out of compromise, but it’s the best…and most ambitious way as circumstances allow.” The treaty underscores the world’s commitment to limiting global temperature rise to less than 2°C and binds its signatories to lowering their emissions at nationally determined levels.

Greenland: the elephant in the room

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The UN Secretary General addressing the Arctic Circle assembly, with the former president of Iceland in the shadows on the right. Photo: Mia Bennett/Cryopolitics

Yet for all the talk of Greenland’s melting glaciers in the Secretary General’s speech, he failed to mention the fact that the Arctic island is one of the only countries in the world that has not signed onto COP 21. Saudi Arabia, which just reclaimed the title of the world’s largest oil producer, is another rare non-signatory. Even the major oil producing countries of the U.S., Russia, and Nigeria have signed.

Greenland’s professed inability to afford the treaty’s terms exemplifies the Arctic paradox: that even as climate change proceeds and permanently alters traditional ways of life, it also opens up new opportunities for development – many of which Greenland’s government is hoping to realize.

As the country’s foreign minister told The Guardian in January, “The economic situation gives us no choice but to develop mining and oil. We would most likely [seek] a territorial reservation. It would be very costly if we were to submit to a binding agreement.”

Foreign investment from companies based in faraway countries like China and Australia may one day help open up the rich mineral resources on land and oil and gas resources offshore. Extraction of these non-renewable resources, which would inevitably emit a significant amount of greenhouse gases, may allow Greenland to become fully independent from Denmark and do away with the ~$660 million block grant it receives every year.

Ban Ki-moon reminded the audience, “As in developing countries, those who have contributed least to climate change are affected the most.” But going forward, developing countries like Greenland that cannot afford to leave their fossil fuel resources in the ground may one day be contributing more per capita to carbon emissions.

Iceland and the promise of technology

In a way, Greenland represents the opposite of Iceland, an Arctic nation that prides itself on its roaring hydroelectric power stations and geothermal energy generation. 99% of the tiny island’s energy comes from these two sources.

In a press conference following his speech, Ban Ki-moon said, “We ask Iceland to do much more.” Citing the country’s strengths in renewable energy and technologies, he emphasized, “We count on Iceland’s strong engagement for sustainable development.”

Iceland is a country that has alternately been cursed and blessed by its geography over the centuries. Currently, its rugged landscape, considered so unforgiving in previous centuries, has put it at the top of the list for the increasing number of tourists seeking extreme destinations. The steep, glaciated terrain also makes Iceland an ideal place for implementing hydropower technologies. Since 1969, Iceland has constructed numerous dams to provide cheap, low-carbon energy for controversial aluminum smelting facilities.

In essence, the country’s poster child status for sustainable development is due to a fortuitous combination of geography and technology. Unlike Greenland, Iceland, unburdened by a pressing economic need to develop its fossil fuels resources (though it is still quietly exploring them with the help of a Chinese state-owned corporation), has signed onto COP 21.

At the end of the day, technology, rather than a political agreement, may represent humanity’s last best hope to tackling climate change. The Secretary General had said earlier in his speech, “But as far as technology – you don’t know what tomorrow brings.” For Greenland and others parts of the Arctic that are banking their economic futures on the carbon-intensive industries of oil, gas, and mining, a technological rather than political solution to climate change may be the only way out.