A recent Greenpeace-commissioned report outlining a roadmap for sustainable development in Nunavut is a good first step but it still misses the point, says a Canadian expert on Arctic development.
The report, entitled Beyond Fossil Fuels – Sustainable Economic Development Opportunities in Eastern Nunavut, calls on the territorial government to wean the vast Arctic archipelago off its dependency on fossil fuels and large mineral extraction projects.
Instead the territory should concentrate on four key sustainable development sectors: developing its human capital, renewable energy, culturally sensitive Indigenous tourism, and global leadership in sustainable fisheries management, argues the report developed by the Centre for Sustainable Economy.
“These are all great goals,” said Heather Exner-Pirot, managing editor of Arctic Yearbook and strategist for outreach and Indigenous engagement at University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
“But I would say there is nothing new here. This isn’t something that Greenpeace has discovered.”
The report is a useful overview of the economic and social development issues but these aren’t problems or solutions that haven’t been discussed before, she said.
The report also is full of inherent contradictions as it tries to square issues such as developing sustainable local economies with the environmental group’s past positions on hunting of seals and other species that have been key to the survival of the Inuit in the Arctic and were the foundation of their local economies for the millennia, Exner-Pirot said.
“I think the environmental community is still struggling to find concrete and valid solutions for northern communities that fit their ideology,” Exner-Pirot said.
For example, environmental groups such as Greenpeace have spoken out against the voyage of the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity, which plans to visit remote Indigenous communities along its route through the Northwest Passage, even though the cruise company has gone to great lengths to make sure it leaves the least possible environmental footprint, Exner-Pirot said.
At the same time authors of the report call for the development of sustainable “Indigenous tourism” overlooking the fact that flying tourists to these remote communities will in itself create a huge environmental footprint, she said.
Getting off diesel dependency
Another issue that the report raises is the question of slowly getting Nunavut off its dependency on diesel as the primary source for generating electricity in the territory.
Exner-Perot says while Canada’s two other northern territories, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, have been able to limit their dependence on diesel – and in the case of Yukon completely eliminate it – Nunavut presents a very challenging case, as none of the existing renewable energy technologies provide the same resilience and reliability as diesel-generated energy.
“The big problem in Nunavut is that they are very much reliant on diesel for power generation, it’s very expensive… but it’s a very useful source of energy,” Exner-Pirot said. “It’s transportable, it’s storable. You can’t really risk having power outages and heat outages in Nunavut, in the winter it’s a real life and death situation.”
While environmental groups call for more investment in renewable energy in Nunavut, they also fail to answer a simple question: who’s going to make those investments, Exner-Pirot said.
“Where are we going to get the public funds to invest in renewable energy when the cheapest one is right now diesel?” she asked.
Sustainable development = no development?
Despite warming climate and retreating Arctic sea ice, Canada’s Arctic territories are also not likely to become major exporters of fossil fuels any time soon, Exner-Pirot said.
“There is way better opportunities in the Barents Sea and Eastern Russia, and even Alaska,” she said. “There is not going to be oil and gas (drilling) offshore in the Arctic, in Canada, for the short and medium term.”
But it’s a different story when it comes to extractive industries that are heavily favoured by the territorial governments who depend on their revenues from mining to complement federal funding, Exner-Pirot said.
“Right now they are so dependent on federal transfers,” she said. “It’s hard to have independent sources of revenue to pay for all these public goods to address the human capital issue, which is the most important in my view.”
While she is very much in favour of sustainable development, Exner-Pirot said she feels the focus has been too much on the sustainable part of the equation to the detriment of the development part.
“People have very exotic views of what the Arctic is and how fragile and vulnerable it is,” Exner-Pirot said. “And for a lot of people sustainable development in the Arctic means no development.”
But people living in the north need jobs too and northern governments need self-determination, she said.
“They are nations and need to be able to fund their own decisions, enact their own policies without having to go to the federal government for support and aid all the time,” Exner-Pirot said. “They need to develop their own economies.”
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Stop romanticizing Arctic development say indigenous leaders, Eye on the Arctic
Russia: NSR – Twinned development of shipping, oil, Cryopolitics Blog
Sweden: Government to form council of researchers for sustainable development, Radio Sweden
Finland: Does Nordea’s divesting of coal shares signal shift in Nordic market?, Yle News
Norway: Production uncertain beyond Q2 at iron-ore mine in Arctic Norway, Barents Observer
Russia: No alternative to Arctic oil says Russia environment minister, Barents Observer
United States: Native corporations Alaska’s new wildcatters, Alaska Dispatch News