When thinking about how the UK achieves, or fails to achieve, the legally binding target of net zero by 2050, what’s happening in the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles from London, might not immediately leap into your thoughts. But as a British overseas territory, albeit one with its own democratic government, with eight elected members sitting with the British governor and military commander on its legislative assembly, its carbon emissions are very much our business – and part of the UK’s responsibility to deliver on keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
And that’s a significant responsibility. With the multiple islands of the Falklands archipelago occupying more than 12,000 square kilometres, it’s about half the size of Wales. Since most of the soil is peat, much of which is drying out fast, there’s a huge risk of emissions but also the possibility of storage through appropriate land management on the Falklands. Progress has been made – sheep numbers have been cut significantly, and most wool production comes under the Responsible Wool label.
But then there’s the subject that comes up in almost every political conversation – the possibility, very soon, of oil drilling. The North Basin is thought to hold 580 million recoverable barrels of oil.
The climate importance of these remote islands is suddenly obvious.
Environmental and geopolitical pressures on the Falklands
The Falklands too has a natural environment of obvious massive tourist potential – penguins and sealions, dolphins and whales, albatrosses and caracara. It draws in cruise shops by the score each year – and they’re a huge global polluter. Interrelated with the climate crisis is that of collapsing biodiversity. There’s been a collapse of several regionally significant fish stocks – and the Falklands’ economy is currently overwhelmingly dependent on income from fisheries – some stocks reasonably well-managed, others coming from outside its waters across the South Atlantic, where there is no regional fisheries agreement.
All of that’s complicated by the geopolitics. The Falklands, of course, were the subject of a war between Argentina and the UK, the 40th anniversary of which has just been marked. A nationalist claim to ‘Las Islas Malvinas’ is being given prominence in Argentina’s school curriculums and a recent government initiative will require all forms of public transport to carry the words ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas’ (The Falklands are Argentinian). The prospect of hydrocarbon revenues only adds to the attractions.
But the people of the Falklands (current population c. 3,500, growing at around 3% a year) voted overwhelmingly in a referendum in 2013 to keep their current institutional arrangements. Self-determination here butts right up against decolonisation. In my view this is another mess our imperial history has created, and the UK now has the responsibility to do the best we can to support a sustainable future that its people decide. (We’ve seen what happened to the people of Hong Kong, who were ‘handed back’ to Beijing – that having been a colonial lease rather than claim.)
The Falkland Islands’ strange ecology under threat
The sheer strangeness of the ecology of the islands is striking to any visitor. For all the richness of the bird and marine mammal population, there are no native trees, no amphibians or reptiles. Tussock grass, the naturally dominant species, growing when undisturbed to up to 10 feet high, when thriving can form peat faster than any other global ecology, but two centuries of sheep grazing, and other human depredations, have left the environment in a parlous state.
We think of marine environments as damp, but the Falklands are notably dry, with average rainfall ranging in different areas from 200 (desert even in my Australian-born terms) to 600mm a year. That means the risk of peat soil drying out, releasing carbon, and being blown into the sea, is high.
As for oil, well I spend quite a bit of my time pointing out to the UK government that the International Energy Agency (IEA – not known for being a radical green body) says the world cannot afford any new oil and gas fields. But the UK government is opening up new fields around these islands, so Falklanders I met understandably respond to the IEA message by saying that they were only looking to do what the UK is itself doing – and local debate very much links this development to the urgent need for new port facilities in Port Stanley, as well as desire to diversify its budget from fisheries dependence.
Greater environmental understanding gives cause for optimism
But there are causes for optimism. The most recent legislative assembly elections saw environmental issues having a prominent place – with opposition to proposed salmon farming (of a species not native to these islands) clearly winning out and a general desire to protect the special environment evident. The creation by the Falklands Islands government of the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute, and support for the Falklands Conservation agency, have led to an increase in research and understanding, although there are still huge holes in understandings of the complex ecological systems.
The reasons for the Falklands being of geopolitical interest have changed. It was its strategic position on pre-Panama Canal shipping routes that led France, Spain and the UK to be wrestling over it two centuries ago. Now, with a growing focus on Antarctica, the state of its icesheets being vital to all of our futures, the Antarctic Treaty up for renegotiation in 2048, and the region’s massive fisheries resources being significant in food security in Asia, the world will be looking closely at what happens in the Falklands.
I’ll be doing what I can to work with Falklanders to see they get solid support from the British government in making sustainable decisions for their, and all of our, futures.
Natalie Bennett visited the Falklands with the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme and had meetings with officials, local experts and members of the legislative assembly. This article was prepared with assistance from Kings College London intern Ben Soodavar.