Nairobi — The rush for resources prompted by an apparent acceleration in sea ice melt calls for caution and effective governance to avoid damage to the fragile Arctic environment, according to the UN Environment Programme's Year Book 2013.
The report, which each year outlines major emerging issues for the global environment, also highlights the need for better information and sound management to minimize the risks from chemicals and raises the issue of the recent spike in the illegal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn.
A reduction in Arctic summer ice cover has become more intense in recent years, culminating in a record low of 3.4 million square kilometres in 2012 - 18 per cent below the previous recorded minimum in 2007 and 50 per cent below the average in the 1980s and 1990s. Land ice is also retreating and permafrost is melting.
The retreating ice brings easier access to natural resources such as gas and oil, thus prompting increased human activity that may threaten the already fragile ecosystems and wildlife, the report says.
"Changing environmental conditions in the Arctic - often considered a bellwether for global climate change - have been an issue of concern for some time, but as of yet this awareness has not translated into urgent action," said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.
"In fact, what we are seeing is that the melting of ice is prompting a rush for exactly the fossil fuel resources that fuelled the melt in the first place," he added. "As the UNEP Year Book 2013 points out, the rush to exploit these vast untapped reserves have consequences that must be carefully thought through by countries everywhere, given the global impacts and issues at stake."
As ice and snow recede, making access and transport easier, the Arctic is expected to play a greatly expanded role in world energy and minerals supplies.
The US Geological Survey estimates that 30 per cent of the world's undiscovered natural gas is in the Arctic, largely on the continental shelves beneath the Arctic Ocean. More than 70 per cent of the undiscovered oil resources in the Arctic are estimated to be held in northern Alaska, the Amerasian Basin, the eastern side of Greenland and other areas.
One insurance company expects up to US$100 billion in Arctic investment in coming decade, largely in the minerals sector. Exploration and mining are accelerating, triggering construction of roads, ports and new settlements.
Receding sea ice is also opening up the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage for shipping for parts of the year. Some countries have estimated that the Northern Sea Route would be turned into a shipping highway "of global importance", with a 40-fold increase in shipping by 2020.
Additionally, there is likely to be a boom in fisheries, as a widely predicted northward shift in subarctic fish species, including Atlantic and Pacific cod, is now being detected. One study predicts that by 2055 fish catches in the high latitudes, including the Arctic, could increase by 30 to 70 per cent.
The combination of rapid environmental transformation and the rush for resources can interrupt hydrology, endanger ecosystems, prevent the passage of migrating caribou and reindeer and severely disrupt the traditional lifestyles of indigenous peoples. It also raises important geopolitical issues that are likely to have ramifications beyond far beyond the Arctic.
The Arctic Council - the core of which is formed by Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States - has a crucial role to play in ensuring any resource exploitation is done responsibly.
The Council has considered sustainable development of the Arctic through reports on snow and ice, pollution, climate change impacts, shipping, human development and biodiversity, and has taken steps to improve environmental governance.
The need for improved governance is all the more crucial now, as the retreat of sea ice has been more rapid than projected in the last report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That report predicted that the Arctic could be ice-free by 2100, but the most-common prediction today is that this could come to pass by 2035.
Loss of sea ice has been accompanied by the melting of the Greenland ice cap, thawing of permafrost on the tundra and less snow on land due to earlier snow melt and melting of some snow cover on glaciers.
The reasons for the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe are manifold. More heat is brought into the Arctic through the atmosphere and ocean currents, while the melting itself prompts further melting by reduced reflection of incoming sunlight.
White ice and snow acts as a mirror, reflecting 85 per cent of solar radiation; however, ice-free areas of the ocean reflect only 10 per cent and the bare tundra only 20 per cent.
Black carbon (soot), a short-lived climate pollutant, is also believed to contribute to warming by darkening snow and ice and reducing reflective area. UNEP and partners last year launched the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to address black carbon and other such short-lived climate pollutants.
The thawing of permafrost will also contribute to further warming as the organic matter stored therein - up to 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon across the northern hemisphere - also thaws and decomposes, releasing the trapped carbon as CO2 and methane.
Impacts of accelerating melt on land and sea
The report outlines many possible consequences of the changing environment, which include:
Melting of ice and snow on land in the Arctic adds to the water in the world's oceans, raising global sea levels.
The largest long-term concern is Greenland, which could raise sea-level by an eventual seven metres if it all melted. While this not imminent as it would take several hundred years at current rates of warming, melting has recently accelerated and current predictions on snow and ice cover on Greenland could be conservative.
Lost Greenland ice, along with runoff to the ocean from permafrost thawing and melting of small glaciers, contributes to changes in global ocean circulation, with possible major consequences for weather systems globally.
Climate change is a major stressor on Arctic biodiversity, with unique habitats disappearing and the life cycles of species synchronized to the melt of snow and ice disrupted.
Arctic mammals such as polar bears, walruses and some seals are particularly vulnerable to the loss of summer sea ice as the ice serves as a launching point and resting area during hunting. For example, receding ice has led to increasing numbers of walruses congregating at a handful of locations on land far from their feeding grounds.
While sea ice loss open up opportunities for fishing for some of the Arctic's approximate four million inhabitants, the loss of sea ice also means coastal communities have less protection from storms. Thawing permafrost destroys vital infrastructure, and changes to the Arctic can threaten indigenous communities' traditional subsistence lifestyle.
The way forward for the Arctic
The report issued many recommendations to tackle the emerging issues, including:
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains the most-important measure. Action within the UN climate process is essential and there may be scope for complementary action on curbing regional emissions of short-lived pollutants such as black carbon.
No steps to exploit the new environmental state of the Arctic should be taken without first assessing how the exploitation would affect ecosystems, the peoples of the North and the rest of the world as the potential for major environmental damage is high.
The challenges posed by climate change and social and economic development in the Arctic require a long-term vision and innovative policy responses. Assessing the options for the Arctic should explicitly include indigenous peoples and other stakeholders.
The rapid pace of change means that strengthened systems for monitoring and providing early warnings of new developments are essential. In particular, environmental research is urgently needed on the impact of short-lived pollutants, the mechanisms of changes to snow and ice and their implications, present and future changes in the biosphere, and the use of traditional knowledge to inform policy and management actions.
Illegal Trade in Wildlife
Another key aspect of the report is the focus on the serious spike in the illegal trade in wildlife.
Data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) monitoring programme showed that 2011 had the highest level of poaching since records began in 2002. Early indications suggest that the number of elephants that were killed in 2012, ran, as in 2011, into the tens of thousands, while a record 668 rhinos were poached in South Africa that year.
Illegal killing of large numbers of elephants increasingly involves organized criminal groups and sometimes well-armed militias. For example, up to 450 elephants were killed in Cameroon in early 2012. Poached ivory is believed to be exchanged for money, weapons and ammunition to support conflicts in the region.
CITES and its partners are supporting the strengthening of national enforcement capacities to fight wildlife crime. UNEP and CITES are also launching a campaign aimed at reducing demand for products from the illegal wildlife trade.
Reaching the 2020 goal for sound chemicals management
The UNEP Year Book 2013 also highlights that while chemicals bring many benefits, there is a need for better information and coordinated action by governments and industry to reduce the growing risks to human health and the environment posed by the unsustainable management of chemicals worldwide.
These risks may be compounded by the steady shift in the production, use and disposal of chemical products from developed countries to emerging and developing economies, says the report.
Annual sales of chemical products doubled between 2000 and 2009, with the share manufactured in highly industrialized countries falling from 77 to 63 per cent. Yet we are falling behind with pre-market testing and too little is known about chemicals already in circulation.
The number of man-made chemicals in the environment is increasing, with one 2009 study finding 212 chemicals in the blood and urine of a sample of the population of the United States. Of those chemicals, 75 had not been previously measured.
Emerging challenges include the risks of chemical mixtures, low-dose exposure, the substitution of hazardous chemicals by other hazardous chemicals, and nanotechnology.
Costs associated with the risks of chemicals are difficult to assess. However, many studies support the urgency of risk minimization. For example, a recent study found that preventing exposure to the neurotoxin methylmercury in children could save the European Union billions of euros each year.
UNEP is heavily involved in reducing the risks from mercury, and in January 2013 the international community agreed a UNEP-facilitated global treaty on Mercury - the Minamata Convention - which will be open for signing in October.
The report recommended the use of economic instruments to create financial incentives for improving chemical safety, increased government capacity for chemical regulation and clear and consistent public information on the hazards and uses of specific chemicals.
The full report can be downloaded here: http://www.unep.org/pdf/uyb_2013.pdf
For more information on the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutions, visit the website: http://www.unep.org/ccac/
UNEP's Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost can be downloaded here: http://www.unep.org/newscentre/default.aspx?DocumentID=2698&ArticleID=9338
UNEP's Emissions Gap 2012 report can be downloaded here: http://www.unep.org/newscentre/default.aspx?DocumentID=2698&ArticleID=9335
UNEP's Global Chemicals Outlook report can be downloaded here: http://www.unep.org/newscentre/default.aspx?DocumentID=2694&ArticleID=9266