Warm up to new reality

Warm up to new reality

The very mention of Arctic evokes images of polar bears, seals, icebreakers and global warming. The Arctic Ocean and the Northern ice caps serve as a barometer for the planet’s changing climate. The region is very much a key parameter in deciding weather and climate patterns of the globe, and also exemplifies impacts of rising greenhouse gas emissions.

The region is very critical for the rest of the world, as various scientific reports have been pointing out. But we tend to ignore the fact that the Arctic region is also home to people – it is permanent residence for some 4 million indigenous people. They have their livelihoods, ambitions and are keen for a sustainable future. This is what makes it different from the Antarctica which has no permanent human settlements. In addition, the Arctic has vast natural resources including oil and gas.

The region remained closed, both physically and politically, during the Cold War era. It was only in the 1990s that countries in the circumpolar region began realising the need for a common agenda for the region as they all had shared concerns, particularly relating to melting caused by greenhouse gas emissions and other issues connected with it. At the same time the world was opening up, becoming more globalised and trade via sea routes was rising.

It was in this backdrop that the first inter-governmental platform for Arctic came into existence in the form of the Arctic Council in 1996, with eight Arctic states- Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States – as members.

A few years later, the Council opened up to non-Arctic countries which could join as observers. The present list of observers includes France, Germany, the UK, Japan, Korea, India and China. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea serves as legal framework for the Council’s work though it has developed its own legally binding agreements on search and rescue, marine oil pollution preparedness.  A third agreement on scientific cooperation is in the pipeline.

By all accounts, sea ice in the Arctic is melting rapidly due to greenhouse gas emissions. The ice coverage area has been reduced by over 40% since 1980 as measured from satellite data. Satellite imageries and data from field studies show that thickness of the ice cover is also reducing at an alarming rate. Put together, scientists have calculated that the Arctic has lost about three quarters of the volume of ice in summer.

In winters, however, the reduction is lesser than in summer. If the emissions continue as projected in the Paris Agreement, scientists predict that the ice cover will continue to shrink levelling off around 2050. It will make most part of the Arctic Ocean like other oceans – much more accessible for shipping, tourism, fishing and exploration of natural resources.

It is ironic that the Arctic is melting due to man-made emissions and yet the same melting is going to open up the region for greater human activity. This is the eventuality for which countries in the Arctic region have begun preparing for. The realisation is that the region can’t remain close for ever, but the challenge is to open up in a sustainable manner.

“It is not a wildlife sanctuary. Arctic has people with knowledge, traditions and skills,” as Vittus Qujaukitsoq, Deputy Prime Minister of Greenland observed at an Arctic conference in Tromso, Norway, recently. The formation of the Arctic Economic Council (AEC) as an offshoot of the parent body is precisely to address such challenges relating to development and economic growth in the region. The AEC has identified improving digital connectivity in the Arctic as a priority area for economic development.

The shipping industry is watching the developments carefully as less ice and more open sea can make the Northern Sea Route – the shortest cargo transit route between Europe and Asia – a reality.

India as observer  

In this emerging scenario, the role of non-Arctic states like India and China should also change. Though the primary driver of change in the Arctic will be the circumpolar countries, the region is very much globalised because of climate change imperatives.

India has had a long tradition of polar research, though it started taking interest in the Arctic only in 2007 when it established a research post there. Observers like India can contribute through research and collaborative work with the Arctic countries. It can share knowledge and skills of traditional communities living in the Third Pole – the Himalayas.

However, we need to invest more in polar research for us to be able to play a meaningful role in the Arctic Council and its activities. To begin with, India needs to acquire a polar vessel of its own and mount regular research projects in the Arctic. The issue is pending for several years now. China recently acquired a heavy-duty icebreaker for its polar activities. It is said to be first in a new class of vessels that China plans to construct.

Unless India puts assets – research ships, technical manpower and science projects – on table, it may not be taken seriously. Though the Arctic Council has remained free of Cold War type rivalry between Russia and America, it remains a strategic platform for all interested parties.

The so-called race for exploring fossil fuels in the Arctic is still decades away, given technical challenges and economic viability particularly in view of falling oil prices. But the Arctic is opening up certainly and this change is going to be irreversible for now. All countries, including India, must wake up to this new reality.

(The writer is Fellow, Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi)
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