From melting sea-ice and thawing permafrost to extreme weather events and major disturbances to food webs, climate change is having a far-reaching and accelerating impact on Arctic ecosystems, threatening everything from biodiversity to the traditional lifestyle of indigenous communities. Greenhouse gas-induced global warming – a major driver of climate change – is an obvious culprit, making carbon neutrality an urgent sustainable development goal.
Carbon neutrality translates to a net zero carbon footprint, when the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is equal to the amount taken out of it. This can be achieved in one of two ways: decarbonisation (reducing reliance on carbon-based fuels in industry, transport, etc.) and carbon offsetting (removing existing carbon dioxide to balance out new emissions).
While the world has made impressive progress towards carbon neutrality in recent years, the process is fraught with challenges, especially in the Arctic, home to unique topographies and fragile ecosystems that require special attention and are not always accommodating to eco-friendly infrastructure. Overcoming these challenges is key for a low-carbon transition.
In the Arctic, challenges to decarbonisation can largely be divided into three categories: environmental (geographic, meteorologic, and topographic), infrastructural, and industrial.
Amongst the greatest environmental challenges are cold temperatures and extreme seasonal variations in daylight hours, both of which result in greater demand for heat and light, much of which is currently powered by fossil fuels. Severe weather conditions also make operating renewable and other low-carbon infrastructure more carbon-intensive and less cost-effective in the Arctic versus other landscapes, not least of all because of extreme fluctuations in the availability of natural sources of energy such as sunlight.
Wind generation in the Arctic also requires special equipment to circumvent icing. Environmental and logistical constraints (freezing weather, darkness, the need to transport materials over long distances, a lack of connections to a larger grid, ground transport infrastructure, and energy storage facilities, etc.) also make building sustainable infrastructure difficult, risky, and fossil fuel-dependent and increase both heating demands and maintenance costs over a facility’s lifespan. Meanwhile, climate change poses its own set of challenges with thawing permafrost – unstable ground for construction.
While parts of the Arctic falling under the jurisdiction of Nordic countries, particularly Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, are relatively densely populated and well-connected in terms of transport (and other) infrastructure (which is why renewables account for such a large percentage of energy consumption in these countries), Arctic areas in Russia and North America are sparsely populated, less industrialised, and expansive, with greater distances between settlements. Such limitations affect both the scale and effectiveness of renewable energy solutions.
With regard to transport, carbon-intensive aviation remains one of the most reliable means to connect remote communities, supply them with goods, and, in some cases, facilitate access to traditional means of livelihood. As tourism and trade grow into pillars of economic development, the demand for aviation and airport infrastructure is only set to increase in the Arctic, posing a challenge for sustainable development in the absence of zero emissions aircraft. The same is true for maritime transport, which is often accompanied by low-carbon nuclear-powered icebreakers. The low-carbon transition is also complicated by the fact that the Arctic is home to several essential yet greenhouse gas-heavy industries, including the mining sector, which provides critical metals for decarbonisation infrastructure.
Carbon neutrality in the Arctic is impossible without targeted energy solutions, a conscientious approach to building sustainable infrastructure, funding programmes, strict regulation, and international cooperation (both in terms of vision and scientific studies).
Installing targeted energy solutions means building energy infrastructure that is optimal for the Arctic environment. This goes hand-in-hand with conscientious construction, which means finding ways to set up and maintain low-carbon technology that circumvents limitations imposed by the harsh Arctic climate (e.g. cold-resistant wind turbines) in the absence of accessible and reliable grid connections, energy storage facilities, and back-up capacity, all of which need to be invested in through efficient financing schemes.
Other than renewables, small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) are one of the most promising targeted energy solutions for the Arctic. Their size, improved safety mechanisms, and versatility (with both onshore and offshore options available) make them more amenable and cost-effective than traditional nuclear power plants. Russia’s floating nuclear power plant “Akademik Lomonosov” is an example of a successful, commercially deployed SMR project. Set up in 2019, the plant has been powering the town of Pevek in Russia’s remote region of Chukotka since 2020. It will eventually replace the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant and Chaunsk Coal-Fired Power Plant, reducing annual carbon dioxide emissions by 50,000 tonnes while meeting the energy needs of both the local population and industry. Canada is also exploring the possibility of SMR deployment in its Arctic region.
Finally, a low-carbon transition in the Arctic requires generous investment, which can be secured more easily with reliable financial mechanisms that distribute risk evenly amongst investors and a clear, unified vision for decarbonisation achieved through international cooperation in transparent scientific assessments of local needs and feasibility studies.
Photo: Strana Rosatom