Authors: Miguel Jiménez Admetlla, Michele Mignogna, Dan Ziebarth - Political Economy, Development, & Energy Security Team
Fight against global warming, on the one hand, and the necessity for exploring new sources of resources to feed renewable technologies, on the other hand, makes for an interesting paradox. Ongoing COP28, which is already a paradox as it takes place in the capital of one of the largest oil and gas producers, is regarded as one of the last chances to launch compelling measures to phase out fossil fuels for humanity to have a manageable future. According to NASA, the average global temperature on Earth has increased by at least 1.1º Celsius since 1880, not an optimistic trend if we consider the threshold set by the International Energy Agency at 1.5º Celsius to avoid catastrophic impacts on the global climate.
A direct solution for this is accelerating the transition towards renewable sources so that emissions are drastically reduced and growth and development are not compromised. However, for this to occur, critical minerals, such as copper, nickel, aluminium, manganese, zinc, lithium, and cobalt, are needed in vast amounts. More specifically, the World Bankestimates that production for some of these metals will need to soar by 500% by 2050. Yet, for this to occur, untapped sources have to be considered. In this context, deep-sea and Arctic ice mining is increasingly becoming plausible.
In this context, the tradeoffs, at least those that are known, for accessing the endowments of the seabed cannot be overlooked. On the one hand, besides being a new source for resource extraction, this activity presents other advantages worth mentioning. For instance, moving the extraction offshore might relieve terrestrial ecosystems from the damage that conventional mining brings. Furthermore, the economic opportunities that may blossom are considerable. On the other hand, even though terrestrial mining might be slowed down, mining offshore carries its risks, such as habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, and disturbances to ecosystems that are poorly understood. Indeed, 38% of the carbon dioxide generated by humanity is stored in the deep ocean, and the breakdown of even a tiny fraction of the marine sediments it stores could exacerbate climate disruptions. These are solely the consequences of what is known, as 75% of the seabed remains unexplored, and only 1% of the deep ocean has been researched.
In this current landscape, the Arctic has become a focal point of geopolitical competition, primarily due to its rich natural resources. Its vulnerability and crucial role in maintaining the current climate status quo make it an area of significant concern. In the following section, we will delve into the key international norms and behaviours exhibited by states that define this region.
Introduction to the Arctic
To understand the geopolitics of the Arctic and the accompanying “race for resources”, it is essential to consider relevant bodies and treaties governing this region. The Arctic Council is one of the integral bodies governing the Arctic. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is an equally crucial international convention for governance in the Arctic region. There are numerous other meaningful international agreements relating to the Arctic, ranging from climate change and environmental protection to the rights of indigenous peoples and issues related to waterways.
The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum integral to policy-making and diplomacy in the Arctic region. The Arctic Council was formed in 1996, and its member states include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. There are also six permanent participants from Indigenous Populations, which include the Aleut International Association (AIA), the Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC), the Gwich’in Council International (GCI), the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), and the Saami Council. Additionally, there are thirty-eight international observers, comprising representatives from various states, intergovernmental and interparliamentary organizations, and non-governmental organizations. Their primary role involves engaging with and proposing projects in collaboration with the member states and/or permanent participants within the Arctic Council.
UNCLOS is a central international convention for the Arctic region and was adopted in 1982. It lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas, establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources. All the Arctic states are parties to the Convention, except for the United States. Much of the discussion about the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has centered on the United State’s refusal to ratify it, which, according to proponents of ratification, has left US interests unsecured in a rapidly warming and increasingly accessible Arctic.
The Loss of the Unknown
In recent years, it has become clear that countries seek the Arctic as an increasingly important area for accessing resources and a source of rising geopolitical tensions. In particular, mining and mineral extraction are becoming central issues of concern. Alongside this, attempts from rising powers such as China and India in the Arctic have raised new issues of competition and transnational relations in the region.
Despite international calls for a global moratorium, Norway is looking to become the first country to start commercial deep-sea mining. This is particularly significant, as Norway is a member of the Arctic Council and a powerful political and economic actor in the Arctic region. Thirty-one countries have pledged to stop all deep-sea mining in the polar areas at the One Planet Polar Summit. In June 2023, the Norwegian parliament approved a deep-sea mining project to explore 280,000 square kilometres of seabed around the Svalbard archipelago, an area spanning into the Arctic region. This ambitious project aims to secure a strategic advantage in accessing new minerals and metals. However, it poses potential risks of adverse environmental impacts.
Geopolitically, the growing presence of Chinese exploration and enterprise in the Arctic has led to rising competition. In its 14th Five Year Plan, China plans to “participate in practical cooperation in the Arctic and build the “Polar Silk Road” (PSR). China established the PSR program in 2017 as part of the larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Simultaneously, India became a permanent observer of the Arctic Council in 2013 and has focused on developing an Arctic policy strategyto grow its regional influence.
The Future of Arctic Resources
In exploring the future trajectory of geopolitics and resource competition in the Arctic, it’s crucial to anticipate two key factors. Firstly, the role of critical materials will significantly reshape economic and political rivalries. With the renewable energy transition becoming increasingly reliant on these minerals, heightened mining and exploration activities in the Arctic are inevitable. These minerals, pivotal in energy-related technologies like batteries, semiconductors, and solar panels, are abundant in the Arctic, making it a focal point for extraction. However, this resource race is not merely about economic gain—it’s influencing international political decisions and raising pressing environmental concerns, especially in the face of climate change’s impact on the region’s ecology.
Secondly, the looming prospect of a multipolar geopolitical struggle implies that nations like China and potentially India seek more significant influence in the Arctic. This growing interest has repercussions for Arctic Council members’ actions and relationships with other global actors. The competition for control over vital waterways, notably the Northwest Passage, could escalate tensions among nations vying for supremacy in this strategically significant region.
These geopolitical dynamics, coupled with the relentless pursuit of critical minerals and economic opportunities in the Arctic, are poised to define the overarching “race for resources” on an international scale.