Thursday, 10 November 2022

The Green Arctic: Lessons Learned

On one level the game was quite inconclusive. The players didn't manage to achieve an accommodation. This showed how hard it is for sovereign nations to pool their sovereignty, to sacrifice their partial interest in exchange for a greater - if intangible - good. Reaching agreement in the Arctic would have been to the benefit of everyone, but that would have meant setting aside purely selfish concerns in order to do so. The inability to achieve this was, in many ways, the expected outcome. The tragedy of the commons hasn't been solved in human history, except in some very rare circumstances, and the inability to do so in a game is not an unusual outcome. However, the absence of an outcome different from our expectations does not mean that the game didn't throw out some interesting possibilities.

In the game play we saw emerging two possibilities that are worthy of further thought. One centred around the use of technology and the other centred around a coalition of like-minded parties. The game play centred on the use of farmed fishing technologies as a means to increase the catches of cod and salmon. This is worth further thought. It is unlikely that current fish farming technologies could be grafted into the Arctic Ocean, but they could form the basis for an eventual solution to the question of fishing quotas.

Equally, it must not be assumed that maritime technologies are static. The game play started to highlight the possibility of maritime technologies becoming much greener than they currently are, so that the environmental footprint per TEU, for example, is much reduced compared to current levels. This has already happened in the past decade, admittedly due to much tougher EU maritime emissions standards, but it shows that it could be done. It is also the case that there is scope to develop mineral and hydrocarbon extraction technologies that are far more sympathetic to the natural environment. Once again, we are already on this trajectory, and it could be the case that further impetus along this road might allow for greater exploitation of the Arctic region than we currently envisage.

This suggests an interesting pathway scenario game to explore this possibility. The pathway could examine the development of technologies that achieve a greater environmental efficiency in the use of the Arctic. It would have to run parallel with the development of an appropriate regulatory and enforcement structure to ensure that the newer technologies are rapidly adopted. The dramatic tension in the game would be provided by the questions of who would finance the development such technologies and who would enforce their use. This is game that would have some merit.

The second interesting possibility for further gaming centred around the issue of finding a coalition of like-minded parties. In the game play, Russia, China, and Japan started to converge on their views of how the Arctic Ocean should be used. This was at variance to the views expressed by Canada, the United States, and the European Commission. The game play started to head towards the creation of two blocs concerning Arctic usage. One with a distinct feel of NATO about it, and the other with a distinct Asiatic feel. I found that to be really interesting.

Much of this coalescence was driven by the construction of the game. However, the national objectives of the players reflected current policy intentions towards an unfrozen Arctic, so we don't feel that this was an unreasonable trajectory. The core issue is the way in which the players view the enclosure of the Arctic as distinct and separate national territorial units. 

It was correctly observed that we didn't provide the players with maps outlining the various national territorial claims in the Arctic. Whether or not this hampered the game play is a question still to be resolved, but the above map shows that there is ample scope for territorial disputes in the Arctic Ocean. Russia lays claim to most of the eastern half of the Arctic Ocean as sovereign territory. What if Russia, in conjunction with China and Japan, were to assert those claims and a user council to govern economic activity within the Arctic Ocean that it claims as territory?

This would provide an interesting end state game. The basic premise would be that the Arctic can no longer be governed within the purely voluntary framework offered by the Arctic Council. In this case a new Arctic Council (AC2) would be needed that recognised the needs of the Arctic states and allowed the greater participation in regulation and enforcement of the Arctic by a broader range of Arctic users. Such a game could focus on establishing generally agreed national boundaries, with the Lomonosov Ridge being a clear point of dispute, and a broader understanding within the coalition of how the usage would be divided. The dramatic tension would be provided by the question of who would join the AC2 and how the usage would be divided within it. The purpose of the game would be to explore future pathways for the development of the Arctic Council.

The two lines of thought originating in the game suggest that it was a worthwhile exercise in undertaking, even if it produced an inconclusive result. Rather than allowing us to drift into a future that might not be to our liking, it gives us the possibility to develop a vision for how the Arctic should emerge in the second half of this century. If we feel that the future of the Arctic should be one of conservation rather than exploitation, or vice-versa, then we now have a framework in which to position those considerations. If the default future outlined in the Blue Arctic scenario is not one of our choice, then we need to build an alternative future that better suits our views. This game is one step towards enabling that process.

Stephen Aguilar-Millan
© The European Futures Observatory 2022

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