On Monday evening, Worldwatch hosted a well-attended official side event at the United Nations Climate Conference in Cancún titled “Low-Carbon Energy Roadmaps: Insights from Those Who Are Leading the Way.” The event explored Worldwatch’s unique approach to designing energy roadmaps worldwide and highlighted a handful of countries that are making measurable progress in the path toward low-carbon development.

Dan Kammen speaking at the Worldwatch event

The panel consisted of Norbert Gorissen from the German Federal Environment Ministry (BMU), Rae Kwon Chung from the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (and South Korea’s former climate ambassador), the World Bank’s new renewable energy czar Dan Kammen, Jiang Kejun from the Energy Research Institute of China, and Nelly Cuello from the Dominican Republic’s National Council on Climate Change. The meeting was moderated by Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin.

Following an opening presentation by Alexander Ochs, Worldwatch’s Energy and Climate Director, the panelists shared thoughts on how their countries (or in Kammen’s case, the World Bank and California) aspire to position themselves as leaders in creating low-carbon development strategies. Each of these players is moving ahead with ambitious policies even in the absence of real progress at the international level.

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In the aftermath of last year’s climate policy debacle in Copenhagen, South Korea is pointing the way to a creative new approach to solving the world’s climate problem.

Two events that occurred simultaneously last week in Cancún crystallized both the challenge and the opportunity facing world leaders as they wrap up the latest round of climate negotiations.

South Korea looks to the future as well

In one room in the Cancún Messe, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh convened a meeting to discuss “equitable access to the world’s carbon space.” Speakers from countries including China and Malaysia made a powerful case for an agreement that recognizes that most industrial countries have already used up their rightful share of the world’s carbon budget—and that all future emissions should be allocated to developing countries.

Meanwhile, just 100 meters away, South Korea hosted an event with a different tone. Led by former Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo and former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern, the event focused on South Korea’s Green Growth Initiative—a new program that is aimed at transforming the country’s economy from the resource- and carbon-intensive model that drove its development to a new one based on the efficient use of energy and resources.

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September 2007 photo of summer ice breaking up in the Northwest Passage. Courtesy New York Times

September 2007 photo of summer ice breaking up in the Northwest Passage. Courtesy New York Times

The security concerns around the Arctic are quickly becoming hot topics in Washington but it was still a little jarring to hear Dr. Robert Huebert, a professor at the University of Calgary in Canada, speak so bluntly about the military implications of melting ice in one of the few truly placid regions remaining on the planet.

“We are already in an Arctic arms race,” said Huebert, during a panel discussion at the Center for National Policy on February 2. “We’re just not aware of it.”

Even more ominously, Huebert compared the current situation in the Arctic to Europe in 1935, implying that it is a powder keg ready to explode with dire implications for the entire world.  “Everybody is preparing for the worst-case scenario,” Huebert says.

By “everybody,” Huebert is mainly referring to the nations ringing the Arctic—the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark. Norway and Denmark have focused their security efforts on the Arctic, Russia famously planted a flag on the North Pole seabed in 2007 and has been more assertive in its Arctic policy, the United States is increasing its presence in Alaska, and Canada, Huebert said, is “talking a lot, but not doing anything.”

China, Japan, and South Korea also have interests in the Arctic, though these nations do not border the region. China and Japan have their eyes on the Arctic’s resources while South Korea has recently emerged as the world’s leading developer of Arctic commercial vessels.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Dr. Scott Borgerson, who moderated the panel, said the Arctic has been losing 1,000 kilometers in ice volume each year since 1995. The ocean could be ice free during the summer months at some point between 2016 and 2030 and this would open up many new shipping routes and increase the military significance of the region.

Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator from Colorado, echoed Huebert’s concern about security concerns in the Arctic. Hart compared the Northwest Passage, which could become a major shipping passage in the next decade or so, to some of the most militarized areas of the last 60 years. He likened the Passage to the Fulda Gap, which, during the Cold War, was a strategic corridor separating East and West Germany, and the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway between Iran and Oman, which today is a major choke point for the oil trade and a focus for the world’s military planners.

“Quite often geography symbolizes how we see our security,” said Hart.

One of the main issues surrounding the Northwest Passage and a strong point of contention between Canada and the U.S. is under whose jurisdiction does the waterway fall. Canada says it is their water, while the U.S. maintains that it is an international passage.

Still, United States Coast Guard Rear Admiral Gene Brooks, who has served in Alaska, said the Canadian and American militaries share intelligence in the Arctic and the forces have worked together seamlessly. The larger problem is simply getting the average American to realize that the U.S. is, indeed, an Arctic nation. This goes beyond military security, he said, and extends to issues of culture and economics.

“We need a national debate on what to do as an Arctic nation,” said Brooks.

arctic, Canada, Climate Change, climate effects, denmark, japan, norway, Russia, security, south korea