While some in the U.S. and much of the rest of the West fret about carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions and global warming, the Chinese – already the by-far world leaders in CO2 production – and the Russians continue their charge into a warm new world.
At some point, this is sure to catch the attention of global activists and journalists focused on U.S President Donald Trump as the climate change devil, but it should be of growing concern to Alaskans now because of the immediate environmental risks to the 49th state.
Russia’s Rostam State Corporation is reporting Northern Sea Route shipping is up 29 percent since November 2018 and petrochemicals comprise a large and growing segment of the tonnage passing along the country’s northern coast.
“The main increase in cargo flow occurred due to the Yamal LNG (liquified natural gas) project, created on the basis of the South Tambey gas condensate field,” the company said. “(But) there was also an increase in the amount of oil shipped from the Arctic Shipping Oil Terminal of the Novoportovskoye Gates of the Arctic.”
As this traffic increases, so do the chances for accidents in the remote Chukchi and Bering seas along Alaska’s wild and undeveloped Western coast where there exists almost no U.S. capacity for dealing with marine disasters and little Russian capacity.
On the U.S. side, there are mainly low-lying villages already threatened by rising seas as the ocean warms.
Edge of the world
As most Alaskans know, the Northern Sea Route bends south in the Chukchi Sea and heads through the 51-mile-wide Bering Strait in the middle of which sit the Diomede Islands.
Were an oil tanker to suffer an accident there and spill oil, there is little help of any sort or any clean-up resources within hundreds of miles. In that context, it is worth remembering how much worse the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Prince William Sound could have been.
After the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in 1989, it gushed an estimated 10.8 million gallons of crude, but it could have spilled almost five times that amount if the Exxon San Fransisco hadn’t been available to off-load the Valdez after the accident. Bligh Reef is only 25 miles from a busy oil terminal in the Port of Valdez.
Fairway Rock just south of Little Diomede in the Strait is hundreds of miles from nowhere. Were a tanker to run aground there, not much of anything could be done by anyone.
The U.S. has talked about beefing up search and rescue and oil response operations in the north, but to date this has been largely just talk. The U.S. Coast Guard presence is limited to a 14-member, forward operating location (FOL) at Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow.
That is a distance of more than 1,200 miles, farther than from New York to Key West, Fla. And unlike the East Coast, which has a number of major ports between New York and Key West, the Alaska coast in question has no port.
Not that it would matter much. The Utqiagvik FOL has no vessel.
Both Russia and China have talked the climate change talk, but both likewise have economic interests in an ice-free Arctic. That makes it hard to tell how whether their climate stands are real or just so much hot air.
“After years of procrastination, Russia, the world’s fourth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has officially joined the Paris climate agreement, which it signed in 2016,” Bloomberg reported in September. “It shows that President Vladimir Putin’s views of climate change are evolving and he wants his government to do more.”
“Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron have signed a pact recommitting to the 2015 Paris Agreement, just days after the US formally withdrew from the landmark global treaty to fight climate change,” CNN reported earlier this month with XI pledging to “push forth the Paris Climate Accords in response to climate change.”
The Paris Agreement is the holy grail of climate activists although it hasn’t meant much to date. Global carbon emissions were up almost 3 percent last year. Canada, which embraced climate action early on, has had little luck in reducing emissions. The country now emits about 35 percent more CO2 than in 1990, and Canada has joined the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Australia among the world leaders in emissions per capita.
Only Central and Eastern Europe – aided by near-zero population growth, walkable cities that in many cases trace their roots back to medieval times when human-power was the main form of transportation and governments committed to energy independence – have shown much success in reducing CO2.
Thanks to nuclear power, France’s per capita emissions are almost half those of neighboring Germany and less than a fifth those of the U.S. and Canada. The world’s largest net exporter of electricity, France draws about 75 percent of it from 58 nuclear reactors.
The Europeans can afford to embrace climate action because they are in a position where the economics work for them. The situation in Russia is almost the opposite, and it is unclear in China.
Like a former territory
Russia’s economy is heavily dependent on oil exports, much like Alaska’s, and Russian political leaders have shown indications they believe the declining Arctic Ocean ice of a warmer world will aid their bottom line.
The Northern Sea Route cuts weeks off the shipping time from the Russian port of Murmansk to Asia via the Bering Strait, and China has become a big backer of Russian LNG plans for the Arctic.
It isn’t just about petrochemicals, however.
“Russia needs an economy overhaul that will reduce the contribution of oil to its budget revenues,” Irina Slav has reported at OilPrice. “(But) it’s certainly not as dependent on oil revenues as some observers would like to believe. In fact, Russia is becoming the dominant force on another commodity market: wheat. Agriculture as a sector is a top priority for the Kremlin.”
Unfortunately, Russia’s now world-leading wheat production only raises more questions about Russian climate policy. Predictions on what global warming will do to Russian wheat run both ways with some models projecting increased yields thanks to warmer weather and others projecting decreased yields due to droughts associated with warming.
What the Russians believe is hard to know, but Putin only two years ago was publicly talking about warming being a positive for the Russian economy. And earlier this month, Haaretz, a respected liberal newspaper in Israel, was pondering whether “Climate Change Could Make Russia Great Again.”
Reporter Jonathon Jacobson envisioned a “Russian scheme designed to challenge the global trade map as it is being drawn via policy decisions by the West….Putin doesn’t have the quantity of resources possessed by his superpower neighbor to the east, but the rabbit in his hat is global warming itself. Beyond the new trade routes that could open up (across the Arctic), Russia will also profit in another way from the planet’s warming: accessibility to land for agricultural production.”
Stephen Wegren, an expert in Russian agriculture, told Jacobson that Russian “policy has evolved to include food exports. They want to become one of the main food exporters in the world, an agricultural superpower.
“Putin has charged the agricultural sector with the task of reaching $45 billion in food exports by 2024. If they do achieve it, this would place them in the global top 10 exporters.”
And a lot of those exports might well move to market via the Northern Sea Route only increasing the odds for shipping disasters that could impact Alaska.
All about business
As for China – Alaska’s upwind neighbor now producing nearly twice as much CO2 as the U.S. on an annual basis – it would appear more concerned about political stability than global CO2.
And cheap energy appears a key part of the political picture. The Global Energy Monitor reported this month that China is in the midst of a major expansion of coal-fired power plants.
“Today, 147.7 GW of coal plants are either under active construction or under suspension and likely to be revived—an amount nearly equal to the existing coal power capacity of the European Union (150 GW),” the global energy monitor said in a report titled simply “Out of Step.”
“The continued growth of China’s coal fleet and consideration of plans to significantly raise the nation’s coal power cap show that while the country is often hailed as a clean energy leader, the momentum of coal power expansion has yet to be halted.”
The report is chilling for those who fear warming.
From 2018 to June 2019, the Chinese added about six-times as much coal-powered energy production as the rest of the world combined decommissioned, the report said. It warned that “if China continues to increase total coal power capacity through 2035 (as proposed), its coal power generation alone will be more than three times as large as the global limit on coal power use determined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to keep warming well below 2°C.”
Canadian climate activist Patricia Adams, who is associated with the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation, warned of this last year and suggested the President Barack Obama-Xi embrace of the Paris accords during the former’s presidency was little but a scam on China’s part “to secure a share of a $100-billion green fund…while promoting exports of green technology.”
With that financial incentive gone, she wrote in a Foundation report, Chinese energy policy is once again “focused on the Communist Party’s two primary domestic needs: securing the energy to fuel China’s economy and reducing the smog that undermines public confidence in the party. Failure to accomplish those two goals would represent an existential threat to the party.”
When it comes to energy, she said, “coal remains China’s mainstay. Demand has been driven up by the combined forces of economic growth, higher power consumption, natural gas shortfalls, and reduced hydropower.”
To solve the coal-related smog problem, China has restricted smog-producing industrial facilities near key cities and shifted coal-burning and smog-causing production to parts of the country where air quality is, in Adams’ word, “a lower political priority.”
The good news is that China is still continuing efforts to shift electric production to natural gas, which produces about half as much CO2 as coal.
The bad news, at least for Alaska, is that a lot of that gas – along with crude oil, wheat and more – could be coming through the Bering Strait aboard Russian ships, and the more ships traffic the area, the greater the chances for accidents.
Add in those Bering Sea villages facing the inevitable need to move to higher ground, and the Russia-China dealings would appear to present the 49th state with none of the benefits and potentially significant costs.