By Ritika Passi:
In May this year, India, along with China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Italy, was inducted as a permanent observer in the Arctic Council. This marks the first time the group of eight circumpolar nations (US, Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland), which coordinates policy on the region, has accepted observers from Asia. Not only is this an indication of New Delhi’s growing international presence and proactive discussion regarding a region quickly gaining eminence as part of the ‘New Great Game’, it also represents a real opportunity for India to keep on the table the critical image of the Arctic as a region increasingly threatened by climate change with local and global repercussions.
On one hand, the warming of the Arctic is creating opportunities in terms of resources and routes. Rising temperatures and the ensuing melting of the Greenland ice sheet means access to new transportation lanes that could transform the map of global shipping. One estimate concludes a minimum 25% reduction in distance between East Asia and Europe: lower transit costs could mean an increase in trade volumes and affect growth and development. The same shrinkage of sea ice has engendered the ‘Arctic Gold Rush’, as hydrocarbon and mineral exploration becomes easier. An estimated 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s oil reserves lie beneath the Arctic seabed. Given that India imports 80% of its energy needs, becoming part of the Arctic inner circle means a first step in securing a likely eventual source of energy.
Even as the focus of the Arctic Council shifts towards the strategic and economic potential of the Arctic region, the initial mandate cannot be swept under the carpet: addressing environmental concerns and issues faced by the indigenous populations in the region. The Arctic is warming up at a rate almost double the global average. Last year, the summer sea ice melted to an unprecedented extent. There are adverse local effects to consider — a permanent loss of summer sea cover could lead to the extinction of polar bears by the end of the century; the disappearance of important fisheries and disturbance of marine biodiversity; increased danger of forest fires and storms affecting coastal populations. Global repercussions too are being set into motion — acceleration of climate change, as the Arctic loses its ability to reflect as much heat back into space and methane is released from warmer waters; an increase in sea levels, which threatens coastal nations like India; a change in global weather patterns and air currents.
As India becomes personally vested in the region, given nascent research efforts such as exploring the relationship between the Arctic climate and the Indian monsoons, New Delhi can build upon its stated scientific interests — as opposed to decidedly commercial ones — to become a part of cutting edge research on the changing Arctic climate. Its plans to invest a further $15 million in the coming five years on its Arctic scientific research station Himadri and station a permanent scientific group are thus a step in the right direction. This is particularly important seeing an increasingly invasive exploration of the Arctic, without adequate remedial measures to limit blowback to the environment, could aggravate climate change in the region and beyond. A voice of caution and prudence, something New Delhi usually exhibits in spades in international dialogues, in the opening up of the Arctic would not be amiss. Sharing of expertise on preserving biodiversity, containing maritime pollution, preserving fish stocks would benefit India on its own home turf as well.
Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary and India’s Special Envoy and Chief Negotiator on Climate Change cautions said, “If we keep silent and look away because of the prospect of sharing in this unseemly Gold Rush, India’s credentials as a responsible member of the international community and as a champion of the principle of equitable burden-sharing and inter-generational equity, would become deeply suspect.” This may indeed be a chance for India to rise to the occasion, cement its position as a responsible nation while engaging proactively in climate change dialogue (and quell criticism for not doing enough on this count). More importantly, it is an opportunity for India, in the capacity a permanent observer position affords New Delhi, to advocate a ‘global commons’ approach to the Arctic to ensure inclusiveness in a region of global import. This may be the clearest way in which to aim for prosperity and security.