HomeIndustry SectorsBusiness and marketsEd's note: The different faces of the fossil fuel challenge

Ed’s note: The different faces of the fossil fuel challenge

This past weekend, I watched an aerial-view video clip of an iceberg breaking off from the Brunt Ice Shelf, Antarctica. This calving event is spectacular and frightening at the same time. 

The mammoth-sized iceberg measures roughly 1,270 square km (490 square miles) and is nearly 150 metres (500 feet) thick, according to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), who recorded the Brunt Ice Shelf calving video.

How has this come about? One train of thought is that the ice cap melting is the result of climate change. The world’s decades-long reliance on fossil fuel has culminated in high carbon emissions levels, affecting the ozone layer, air quality, and so much more. However, there is another argument. 

Some people believe the changing weather and melting ice is a natural occurrence. Basically, the lifecycle of an ice shelf, which grows until it’s too big to support itself, collapses, and the process starts again. According to BAS scientists, there is “no evidence that climate change has played a significant role [in this latest calving event]”.

Regardless of your standpoint on climate change, the melting of the polar ice caps is as much a disaster as it is an economic opportunity. As the ice melts, it opens the Northern Sea Route from Asia to Europe for shipping, creating access to potentially vast new reserves of minerals, oil and gas, and tourism—which comes with its own baggage.

These northern opportunities are on the radars of geopolitical giants China and Russia.

According to Bloomberg, in recent years, the Kremlin has bet the country’s economic future on natural gas, building new pipelines to China, Turkey and Germany, while aiming to take a quarter of the global liquefied natural gas (LNG) market, up from zero in 2008 to around 8% today.

Recently, China took a 30% stake in an LNG project in northern Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, with about half of China’s LNG now coming from Russia.

As part of its global Belt and Road Initiative, China is investing in the Arctic — setting up research stations, investing in mining and energy, and working with Russia to create a new sea route through the Arctic Ocean.

These endeavours appear to be heavily in tune with the fossil fuel market; or am I mistaken?

The energy transition away from fossil fuel dependence is knocking. Much is at risk for countries like Russia, where some of its vast regions are entirely dependent on coal or oil for jobs, and an energy transition is not likely to come easily.

The Kremlin is well aware of this and, in 2020, initiated its first floating solar PV plant. Albeit a test project in the reservoir, the 54kW floating solar plant features a pontoon block with 140 solar panels at Russia’s largest hydropower plant in the far eastern region.

The reliance on fossil fuel resources will continue for decades to come if the US, European Union, India, Russia, and China aren’t progressively leading the march.

Will the melting ice cap predicament solidify fossil fuel reliance or increase the pace of cleaner fuels? Only time will tell, but for now, the question is, what risks do ice shelf calving present?

Icebergs of this enormous size must be monitored in case they stray too close to commercial shipping lanes, fragments even further, or worse.

For example, the Brunt Ice Shelf calving is dwarfed by the one that broke off from Antarctica’s Larsen C Ice Shelf in 2017, which recently threatened to collide with South Georgia Island and is among the largest ever recorded at 5,800 square km (2,240 square miles).

The shift in weather patterns and ice landmass remains a concern for scientists. A small team briefly visited the BAS Halley station earlier this year to conduct maintenance. This included the equipment that measures the behaviour of the Earth’s ozone layer.

Another important responsibility for the team was to manoeuvre the Brunt’s solar-powered GPS units above the fallen snow. Two of these units are now travelling with the new berg as it drifts out to sea to help track its movement.

While climate change may not have directly caused the Brunt Ice Shelf calving, the increasing temperature of waters and changing flow patterns could influence its path; shipping; and aquatic life, which is a substantial food resource for many nations.

The Earth is changing and our commitment to reducing the use of fossil fuels must not result in yet more challenges. As countries seek out opportunities in the Polar Regions, what consequences are top of mind for you?

Until next week.

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
As the Editor of ESI Africa, my passion is on sustainability and placing African countries on the international stage. I take a keen interest in the trends shaping the power & water utility market along with the projects and local innovations making headline news. Watch my short weekly video on our YouTube channel ESIAfricaTV and speak with me on what has your attention.