The Week Ahead: Oceans 2

Marine plastic litter is one of the oceans’ most intractable problems. A pair of meetings this week will assess the situation from the shoreline, as well as from a more removed perspective.

By Kevin McGwin - June 4, 2018
A piece of plastic net at the HAUSGARTEN, the deepsea observatory of the Alfred Wegener Institute in the Fram Strait. (Alfred Wegener Institute)

There is no shortage of bad news about the world’s oceans — to the point that even recent good news (that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has survived six climatic “death events” in the past 30,000 years) came with a dark lining (that the seventh — ongoing human-induced climate change — may be a mortal blow).

It is with an increasing sense of urgency, then, that two meetings in the coming week will take up the problems facing three-quarters of the world’s surface — and what that might mean for the other quarter.

The first, being held in Akureyri, Iceland, on June 5 and 6 will look at marine litter in the region as part of a process that will end with a report presented during the Arctic Council’s next biennial meeting, in May 2019.

Litter — and more specifically plastics — is, according to the meeting’s briefing papers, “a universal challenge” that is “global and transboundary” in nature. In spite of the problems it is suspecting of causing for animals and humans, its overall impact on the region is widely unknown.

[Study finds record amount of microplastics in Arctic sea ice]

There is mounting international pressure to institute measures that will slow the flow of plastics into the world’s oceans, either by reducing the amount of plastic sold, or by promoting plastics that degrade more easily. For now, though, one of the only ways of addressing the issue is through coastal clean-ups. The hands-on approach will only get the region so far. First, because of the sheer volume: Worldwide, there is an estimated 150 million tons of plastic in the world’s oceans, according to the UN. As many as 13 million tons more may be added each year.

To get a sense of the speed of accumulation plastics in the region, consider the findings of research done on Svalbard. It found that, while very little plastic was found in the stomachs of seabirds the end of the 1970s, by 2013, some had 200 pieces.

This also hints at the second limitation of using clean-ups as the main response to plastic pollution. While plastic’s overall volume in the ocean is tremendous, many of the individual pieces are not. In fact, a single liter of sea ice can contain more than 200 pieces of sea ice.

[Researchers find high levels of microplastics on Norway’s Arctic coast]

Dealing with plastic in the Arctic and other oceans, it would seem, requires action at an entirely different scale than even the largest clean-ups. And it is here that the second meeting will be looking to make progress. On June 8 and 9, in Québec City, Canada hosts the annual summit of the G7 powers, and Ottawa is hoping to use its presidency to come up with measures to improve ocean health. Plastics are singled out as one of the big problems.

Bringing up marine plastic litter at a G7 summit might seem to an invitation to inaction. The meetings, as the name hints, are limited to seven regular participants — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. Likewise, their status as a forum for the world’s major industrialized countries suggests that topics of discussion are mostly economic in nature. Though this is often the case, when other types of topics matter enough, they are put on the agenda, particularly if they are a national priority, as they are in Canada’s case.

Participation, too, can be widened. Ottawa will seek to show the global scale of the problem by bringing in an additional 12 world leaders and the heads of four international institutions for the oceans section of the summit. For a problem that appears to know no bounds, expanding participation may be the only way to get an adequate overview.

Barents-Euro doorstop

Most of the territory considered “the Barents Region,” lies in Russia. This fact will be worth remembering as representatives from the region gather European decision makers and others in Brussels on June 5 to discuss why the Barents matters for the EU, and other issues.

The remainder of the Barents Region includes the northern parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway. Despite its geography, the region is solidly European, boosters argue. This is a fact they seek to hammer home by using the region’s other name — the Euro-Arctic. It is also useful when trying to help people place it on the map, geographically and strategically.

Calling it by its alternate name has two other benefits. First, telegraphing the region’s Arctic status has helped the its representatives get an audience during discussions about what the union’s policy towards the region ought to be.

Second, it underscores that the Barents Region is tied to the EU, but not entangled by its politics. Most important in this respect are relations with Russia. At a time when Brussels’ relations with Moscow are strained, collaboration in the region on things like education, the environment and research remains mostly unburdened.

“Russia is on the outs with the EU, but they are still very important to each other,” says Mikael Janson, the head of the North Sweden representative office in Brussels. “Our cooperation is tool for helping them keep a door open.”

Controlled crash

Members of Greenland’s Inatsisartut, the national assembly, went on summer recess last week in the expectation that, when they reconvened on September 28, one of their main orders of business would be final debate over whether to permit construction of three new airports.

Whether either will come to pass will depend on whether Kim Kielsen, the premier, can do some quick repair work on the governing coalition that he formed at the beginning of May.

Ever since the projects were introduced, in 2015, they have called for the runways at two of the airports, in Nuuk, the capital, and Ilulissat, the main tourism destination, to have lengths of 2,200 meters, making it possible for intercontinental jets to land there.

During debate over the airport on the final day of the spring session, however, members of Partii Naleraq, one of the four parties in Kielsen’s government, called for a study of 1,200 meter lengths.

The suggestion led Kalaallit Airports, a nationally controlled firm that will manage construction of the facilities and then run them, to indefinitely postpone sending final specifications to the firms it has invited to submit bids to build the runways, potentially jeopardising the 2022 completion date.

For Kielsen, whose coalition has just a single seat majority, and has already been forecast to have a short lifespan, the task will be to speak loudly enough to convince Partii Naleraq to toe the line when it comes to a central issue for his government, yet not so loudly that it bails out.

The Week Ahead is a preview of some of the events related to the region that will be in the news in the coming week. If you have a topic you think ought to be profiled in a coming week, please email [email protected].