National interests

Some governments are as keen as businessmen to encourage the opening of an Arctic Bridge, although their enthusiasm is based on different grounds. While industry can keep pace with global competition if goods quickly reach their destination markets and are less vulnerable to disruption by pirates or accidents, governments view this priority not just in terms of profit and loss but also from a different angle. For all governments are painfully aware that civil protests can easily be triggered, anywhere in the world, by massive unemployment and food inflation. Over the past few years, with burgeoning demand in China, India and the rest of the world, they welcome any development that can help their businesses stay competitive, keep commodity prices to a minimum and reduce unemployment at home. This not only allows them to tax company profits but also helps to preserve social stability.

The growing if distant prospect of an Arctic Bridge is all the more appealing in this regard because it has coincided with heightening fears of food riots. The price of foodstuffs has soared in recent years for a number of highly complex reasons, chief among which is the huge, unsustainable rate of population growth in the Third World. Whatever the causes, events in the summer of 2008 realized every government's worst nightmare, as huge numbers of angry and violent protestors the world over took to the streets to demonstrate against dramatic rises in the price of food. In the course of 2009, experts and political leaders continued to warn that 'the food crisis has not gone away' and could soon return with a vengeance, fast 'resuming [its] upward trend' to threaten an impending 'food crunch'.18 Coupled with a worldwide recession, which in 2009 is already provoking public anger, this presents a potentially ominous development.19

This is the one reason why governments have watched the melting of Arctic ice with mixed feelings, dismayed by the prospect of rising sea levels and environmental destruction, but at the same time welcoming the commercial opportunities that it appears to bring. As the EU's Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Commissioner, Joe Borg, told the Arctic Council in 2008, 'as the ice recedes, we are presented with a first-time opportunity to use transport routes such as the Northern Sea Route [and] this would translate into shorter transportation routes and greater trading possibilities with the opening up of new waterways and international trade routes'.20

An Arctic Bridge also offers governments some benefits and rewards that are simply not available to businesses, or else are of no real interest to them. So in December 2008 the member states of the EU tentatively agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 20 per cent, and any reduction in the journey times of international shipping will help them reach these ambitious targets. This, of course, leads to a rather curious situation, for carbon dioxide is melting Arctic ice and thereby creating new routes that will in turn enable countries to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions.

For two neighbouring governments - Russia and Canada - the opening of Arctic sea routes to international shipping could potentially offer a hugely tempting bonanza: the payment of transit fees that would go straight into their coffers.

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