CLIMATE CHANGE may be interpreted by some as disadvantageous to the world economy. While that view holds some validity, it is not the concern here now. Beneath the frenzied campaigns to halt climate-endangering human activities – much of which have also led to stupendous rise in global wealth and well-being, and have provoked divisive politics – are surreptitious but spirited efforts at taking political and economic advantage of the outcomes of the climate and weather events. As the polar ice continues to melt, exposing more land areas hitherto covered by thick and high sheets and columns of ice and more water bodies, countries close to the poles are set to be locked in another form of contest for the lands and seas that are now opening up. Their concerns about what to gain from the seas, land surface and sub-soil in the polar area – the unstated driving motives for their adventures – are about to alter global diplomacy and politics in profound ways.
Countries such as Russia, Canada, the US and the Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Greenland, Iceland, Faroe Islands and Aland will be locked in recurring battles for dominance, might, access and entitlement. Power relations will be on full display depending on the relative sizes of countries and it will not be out of place if these lead to a global diplomatic reset as there will be realignments of interests to varying degrees between and among countries. If early signs are anything to go by, the increased military activities of US, Russia and now China in spirited attempts to gain control of the region should be a pointer. Mineral resources, prospects for both conventional and green energy and the fisheries business are big prizes awaiting the exploiters. A return of the Cold War era may be in the making because of what is at stake. The realisation that a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas is buried underneath the Arctic Ocean might rattle and slow down the pace of the race towards green and renewable energy.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the melting of Arctic ice will open up maritime trade routes across the Arctic region that may halve the transit time between Europe and Asia. This will come with some increasingly environmentally destructive exploits, and food security may be one of the casualties. A drastic reduction in the world fish supplies may put unprecedented pressure on Norway, a country famous for its fisheries resources in that part of the world. China, on the other hand, is now becoming a source of worry – as pointed out by another world power such as the UK – as the melting ice is providing an opportunity for China to deploy and aggressively militarise its fishing fleets, an act that might continue and become widespread against helpless and vulnerable island nations within the region in competition for fish as the country struggles to feed its teeming population. For its infamous acts of overfishing and going to distant waters outside its own exclusive economic zones to fish, China could spearhead a new form of global fish diplomacy, the type that would pit many countries against it as they demand strict adherence to global best practices for sustainable fisheries.
The prospects of feeding the world in the future depend greatly on a politically and environmentally stable Arctic region. Rupture in diplomatic relations between countries in the region could lead to a breakdown of peace, law and order and subsequent armed hostilities. Back-up samples of seeds of various crops from all over the world needed to be tucked in somewhere to avoid total or permanent losses of endangered crop species. The duplicate seeds are stored in anticipation of post-crisis restoration of agricultural systems after conflicts, diseases and natural disasters. The Svalbard global seed vault on Spitsbergen, part of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, has reportedly been helpful for Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan in providing seeds to replenish their seed stock and restore agricultural diversity in the war-torn regions through resorting to the stored seeds in the back-up storage. But Svalbard seed vault itself could become vulnerable. Global warming in extreme cases could render the seed vault susceptible to temperature change and regional hostilities could make it unsafe. Attention of global political leaders would therefore have to be focused on the need to guarantee future food supplies by protecting Svalbard. The work of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) might be jeopardised should Svalbard come under any threat of aggression or global warming. Africa-based institutions such as the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), may lose much of Africa’s seed varieties and species kept in the seed vault, just as other countries of the world could. Africa’s food security in the future is therefore inextricably linked with the security of the Svalbard seed vault.
The reconfiguration of maritime routes, renewed emphasis on food security back-up, new energy locus and subsequent redrawing of global economic map would shift attention significantly away from Africa as the Arctic becomes a cynosure of sorts. The global economic centre of gravity has – for the most part – been in the global north. The climate change and associated discoveries in the Arctic might further reinforce that historic advantage at the expense of the third world countries, particularly African countries. Africa is known for raw agricultural commodities and raw mining commodities in the global market. The various commodities Africa boasts of might become less attractive or competitive in the global market as options that entail less cost are becoming available to the markets in Europe, Asia and North America. Cost of freights could discourage supply chains over long distances and put Africa at greater competitive disadvantage, following the events of the recent past as the world experienced stark regionalisation of supply chains during the global lockdown that restricted movement of finished goods and raw materials from going far.
Africa will have to do a lot to attract the world’s attention, particularly the attention of the global north. With the US already attaining energy sufficiency during the Trump era, Russia ramping up its energy supply and China making remarkable progress in its electric vehicle manufacture and sales, many countries that hitherto depended on Africa for petrol might henceforth respond to Africa’s petroleum with cold indifference. Worse still, as more supplies dampen the global oil market, countries like Angola, Nigeria and Mozambique might find themselves in serious competitive disadvantage. Their national economies that depend much on oil sales prices in the global market might suffer serious setback. African countries that thrive on agricultural commodity exports might be shunted aside by others in Asia based on proximity to the markets in Europe and North America through the Arctic new trade routes. The Mediterranean-Suez Canal-Red Sea maritime route linking Europe and North America with Asia may become less important and less attractive to most of the operators in global maritime activities and trade as Europe, Asia and North America would find the Arctic routes cheaper and faster. The experience of Evergreen ocean liner that obstructed the Suez Canal for days earlier in the year has already started to set stakeholders thinking about possible alternatives after over 300 ships were held up on either side of the Suez while the stuck Evergreen was awaiting re-floating. Investors in maritime trade could count their losses to the narrow passage blocked for days, and the effects on their operational bottom line.
Without value addition to goods and commodities offered for export, Africa’s competitive edge in global trade risks being eroded. Militarily, the world’s big economies – rightly or wrongly – could decide to withhold assistance from Africa on the basis of low economic interests and expectations from within the continent. This alone could further worsen the security situation in Africa, with the preponderance of armed non-state militia, insurgents and terrorists. Poor revenues from export trade could weaken many national governments to the extent of implosion. Agriculture and food security would be logical victims as insecurity will further discourage primary production of food, stall logistics and lead to food price inflation. Those meant for export would in all probability be less sought after. Countries that depend on revenues from agricultural exports will experience budget deficits and national debts will mount. A vicious cycle could therefore set in, leading countries on the brink economically. A new wave of emigration could commence as people flee the continent in search of better life outside.
With realistic planning and policy execution, all of these worst case scenarios could be averted in reality. Countries of Africa need individual and collective efforts to prevent the imminent from coming to pass. With a population of 1.26 billion people, Africa needs to make deliberate efforts to situate itself well in a constantly changing world demographically, economically and socially. It begins with the recognition that many changes occurring in the world are leading to re-configuration of the entire world system and Africa cannot afford not to respond accordingly. While some of those changes have mostly been interpreted from the backdrop of negative projected outcomes, some are quick to see the silver linings around what is generally seen as black clouds. That is what the Arctic story is all about. And Africa must devise its own way of coping with the consequences of the changes this will unleash on the world in years ahead.