Resources and Rights: Panel Discussion at the Potsdam Summer School Highlights the Challenges Faced in the Arctic

A Russian flag lies 4 261 metres beneath the ice on the Arctic seabed. It was planted there by a submersible in August 2007. While this may have been a merely symbolic act, it nevertheless shows the great interest in the possibilities presented by the Arctic as it heats up. “The claims to future resource mining are already being staked today,” remarked maritime law expert Professor Nele Matz-Lück from Kiel University (CAU). She was one of four scientists who discussed the consequences of climate change in the Arctic during a public panel discussion at the 1st Potsdam Summer School on Monday. The event was organised by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), the University of Potsdam, the Helmholtz-Centre Potsdam - GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in cooperation with the City of Potsdam.

By way of an introduction, Professor Peter Lemke from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven informed the audience about the extent of changes in the Far North in his lecture “Climate Change in Polar Regions – Should We be Worried?” As the climate scientist explained, “The Arctic is heating up at twice the average global rate. In the last thirty years the area covered by sea ice in summer has shrunk by 35 per cent.” He warned that the region could be ice-free in summer by 2070. This would have a profound effect on the entire planet: an ocean covered in ice is thermally insulated from the atmosphere, but as soon as that ice melts, heat from the water is increasingly released into the atmosphere. This changes the climate across the globe.

A “dramatic transformation” is already underway in the Far North according to Professor Hans-Wolfgang Hubberten from the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Potsdam Research Unit, which conducts research on Polar land regions. This is because permafrost soils, which usually remain frozen throughout the year, have begun to thaw. As a result, living conditions are changing for humans, animals and plants. For example, buildings are sinking into the sodden earth, and railway lines and roads are becoming unusable.

Furthermore, large quantities of methane are stored in permafrost soils. Currently there are speculations about a ‘methane climate bomb’, as the thawing of permafrost soils could lead to the release of this greenhouse gas, whose impact is said to be twenty times greater than that of CO2. “The burning question is how much methane is still stored in permafrost that is not accessible. Before we have some basic understanding of that, we will not be in a position to model future scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Hubberten. However, he does not expect that there will be a sudden explosive release of methane.

Under the melting sea ice and on the territories of the eight Arctic states there are also large deposits of oil, gas, ores, precious metals and rare earths, all of which are coveted resources. Professor Hans-Joachim Kümpel, president of the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), is one of the researchers who are conducting geological investigations to assess this resource potential. In Kümpel’s view, not using these resources – as some environmentalists are demanding – is not a realistic option at present: “In that case we would have to totally change our standard of living.” The goal is rather to ensure the sustainable use of these resources. All the scientists on the panel were agreed that German researchers are internationally respected for their efforts to come up with solutions to the problems in the Arctic.

The subsequent discussion with the audience mainly explored new avenues for environmental policy, for example, the question whether the Arctic Council should be upgraded to an international organisation with legal powers, which could introduce binding regulations to ensure the sustainable use of the Arctic’s resources. In her answer to that question, legal expert Matz-Lück emphasised that “international law is only as good as its enforcement.” The countries bordering the Arctic have sovereign rights to resources in their maritime zones that they would not willingly hand over to an overarching body.

Another question concerned the two-degree goal established in climate policy. One member of the audience said that he thought it was unlikely that CO2 emissions could be reduced to the extent required to achieve this goal: “The self-interest of countries will make that impossible.” Peter Lemke agreed that negotiations between states have not yet borne much fruit. In his view, the initiative shown by cities such as Copenhagen and Melbourne, which have set their own ambitious CO2 emissions reduction targets, are more promising. Urging businesses to change their attitude to emissions is another way of effecting change: “If we could get the twenty biggest companies in the world to do that, we’d be eighty per cent of the way to achieving the desired result.”

Photo: (c) Uni Potsdam/AVZ