Arctic a ‘hemispheric sink’ for chemicals & plastics

GS Paper III

News Excerpt:

According to a new report, the Arctic is a ‘hemispheric sink’ for chemicals & plastics accumulating in the region from local as well as global sources.

More about the report:

  • The report “The Arctic’s Plastic Crisis: Toxic Threats to Health, Human Rights, and Indigenous Lands from the Petrochemical Industry was launched by Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) on April 15.

Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT):

  • ACAT is a not-for-profit organization with a core belief in environmental justice for the Alaskan community.
  • It empowers communities to eliminate exposure to toxins through collaborative research, shared science, education, organizing, and advocacy.

International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN):

  • IPEN is a global network forging a healthier world where people and the environment are no longer harmed by the production, use, and disposal of toxic chemicals.
  • Over 600 public interest NGOs in more than 120 countries, largely low- and middle-income nations, comprise IPEN.
  • The Network works to strengthen global and national chemicals and waste policies, contribute to ground-breaking research, and build a global movement for a toxics-free future.

Key highlights of the report:

  • It advocated for a Just Transition framework that is specifically oriented toward shifting the Arctic and the world “from an extractive to a regenerative economy that fosters healthy, equitable communities”.
  • Transformational changes are urgently needed from the local to international levels to prevent further harm and to advance solutions.
  • The report noted that challenges like plastics, toxic chemicals, and climate change were equally responsible for bedeviling the Arctic.

Sources of Pollution in the Arctic:

According to the report, the Arctic is suffering from both local and global pollution.

  • Global Sources:
    • Plastics and chemicals produced all over the world deposit and accumulate in the Arctic. 
    • Chemicals and plastics are transported to the region on atmospheric and oceanic currents from lower latitudes, through a process known as global distillation or the “grasshopper effect.”
    • Meanwhile, the burning of fossil fuels globally exacerbates the devastating consequences of climate warming, particularly in the Arctic. The region is warming at a rate nearly four times faster than the rest of the world.
  • Local Sources:
    • The report notes that Arctic peoples already have a long history of suffering as a result of the region’s colonization and the subsequent exploitation of local natural resources.
    • The fossil fuel/petrochemical industry too has played a role in this process. The Arctic has long been explored by the industry in search of coal and petroleum.
      • Many of the multinational oil and gas corporations active in Alaska have long track records of environmental violations. 
      • Air pollution in the Arctic from their operations and their oil spills and releases of hazardous substances harm the environment and threaten Arctic Peoples’ health, yet the costs of this damage have never been calculated.

Key Terms:

Grasshopper Effect: 

  • It is a cycle of long-range transport and deposition of persistent organic pollutants that can carry them thousands of kilometres from their source. 
    • Toxic pollutants released thousands of miles to the south evaporate in the warm climate. 
    • They then ride the winds until they reach the cold air of the Arctic, where they eventually condense and fall to the earth, deposited as toxic rain or snow.

Future of the Petrochemical industry in the region:

  • As the world looks at shifting to renewables, the fossil fuel industry is looking to dramatically increase its production of petrochemicals and plastics in the Arctic region.
    • The industry’s plan to increase fossil fuel operations in the Arctic is tied to their intent to focus on producing more plastics and chemicals, regardless of the harmful impacts on Arctic Peoples or the climate. 
  • Further, climate warming and melting sea ice in the Arctic is opening new areas for exploration and development.
  • According to industry projections, oil and gas used for petrochemicals will increase from less than 20% today to as much as 50% by 2050.

Impact on the people and community:

  • Rapid warming of the Arctic is forcing climate-induced community displacement and threatening food security. 
  • Indigenous Peoples are being pushed out of their traditional lands and losing access to traditional foods, sacred places, and other cultural practices due to the interlinking consequences of chemicals, plastics, and fossil fuels.
  • The estimated 13 million inhabitants of the Arctic, who come from 40 ethnic groups, are at risk from plastics, chemicals, and climate change.

Way Forward:

  • The government should end the subsidies to the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries and support clean, renewable energy and a toxics-free materials economy. 
  • For a cleaner and sustainable Arctic, the expansion of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry in the region must be stopped.

Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution:

  • In March 2022, at the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), a historic resolution was adopted to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.
  • The resolution requested the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to convene an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop "the instrument," which is to be based on a comprehensive approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastic, including its production, design, and disposal.
  • The INC began its work in 2022, with the ambition to complete the negotiations by the end of 2024. 
    • The first session of the INC (INC-1) took place in Punta del Este, Uruguay in December 2022.
    • The second session (INC-2) in June 2023 in Paris, France
    • The third session (INC-3) was in November 2023 in Nairobi, Kenya.
  • The fourth session (INC-4) is scheduled for 23 to 29 April 2024 in Ottawa, Canada, and the fifth session (INC-5) from 25 November to 1 December 2024 in Busan, Republic of Korea.

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