Climate Change and global warming are causing a steady melt of the permanent and thick ice fields in the Arctic Ocean. A deep water sea route has now opened up linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Additionally, deep sea oil and mineral exploration, in a region that may hold 40 per cent of current global reserves of oil and gas, has now become feasible. Taken together, these developments have the potential of redrawing the geopolitical map, redistributing power and influence among countries even while threatening the fragile life sustaining systems of our Planet Earth.
During the past three years, the so-called Northwest Passage through Arctic waters has actually been used by commercial shipping, from Yokohama (Japan) to Rotterdam (Holland). This route is 40 per cent (or 4000 km) shorter than what existing shipping uses. Using this route bypasses the Suez Canal. A new Arctic route between Rotterdam and San Francisco will cut shipping time by 12 days, bypassing the Panama Canal. Since the Northwest Passage traverses very deep waters, large container ships and super tankers will escape the size and volume restrictions imposed by the narrow and relatively shallower passageways of the Suez and Panama Canals. It is estimated that this alone may cut shipping freight by over 40 per cent.
The Arctic Zone is also becoming a major tourist destination with an increasing number of cruise ships visiting one of the most pristine areas of the world. During the past year, over 50,000 tourists come to this region, mainly to Greenland.
The Arctic Ocean is ringed by five coastal states — the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark (through its jurisdiction over Greenland, which will, however, evolve in due course, into a fully independent and sovereign state). These five states do have territorial disputes among them, but are united in rejecting the view that Arctic Ocean constitutes a common heritage of mankind. The role of any international agency in the management of a very fragile ecology is also rejected. This is despite the fact that any alteration in that ecology will have significant impact across the globe. There is no counterpart to the Antarctica Treaty (to which India is a party) which constitutes a global compact to preserve the pristine ecology of the southern ice-continent by foreswearing any resource exploration or exploitation.
There have been significant developments recently. In April 2010, a long-standing territorial dispute between Russia and Norway was resolved and the maritime boundary between them has been delimited. This has opened the door for the exploitation of oil and gas resources in this part of the ocean area. Russia is already off the mark in undertaking exploratory drilling. The multinational, BP, is keenly interested in drilling in the Russian zone.
These developments cannot but change geopolitical dynamics in significant ways. If the density of shipping routes through the Arctic increases, the importance of countries that lie astride these routes will be enhanced. Countries that dominate traditional shipping routes today will decline in relative influence. The salience of the Arctic or Northern Tier countries, including the US, Canada, Russia, Norway and newly emergent Greenland, will increase. If these countries additionally benefit from the exploitation of the region’s rich resources, their relative imprint in geopolitical terms will increase even further in a resource-constrained world.
New infrastructure along the Arctic littoral is likely to come up quickly in the coming years, to serve the surge in maritime traffic. New ports and harbours are being planned with the most modern infrastructure and facilities. Inevitably, there will be a corresponding expansion of military and naval facilities to safeguard these new and expanding economic assets.
The opening up of the Arctic to global shipping and to resource exploitation will become major drivers of global climate change. The melting of Arctic ice is likely to raise sea levels and alter the chemistry of oceans worldwide, with unpredictable consequences. The stable patterns of ocean currents may be affected — which may, in turn, disrupt weather cycles, including tropical monsoons which are vital to our own survival. The extended availability of fossil fuels from the Arctic will effectively mean the shelving of any plans to transition to low-carbon growth. In fact, this will mean an intensification of carbon-based growth across the world, retarding and perhaps even derailing the shift to renewable and clean sources of energy, which is critical to reversing global warming. The ongoing multilateral negotiations on climate change under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change may turn out to be irrelevant.
The Arctic may seem distant, but the evolving situation in this ecologically pristine zone cannot but have a huge impact on India and the world. There may be an intensification of global warming, exacerbating all the adverse effects already being witnessed and anticipated on virtually every aspect of our livelihoods. Should five countries, which, as an accident of geography, form the Arctic rim, have the right to play with the world's ecological future in pursuit of their economic interests? If there are significant shifts in the world's shipping and, therefore, trade patterns, what will this mean for countries like India? Will the exploitation of energy resources in the Arctic improve India’s energy security or complicate it even more than currently is the case? There is currently a shift in the centre of gravity of the global economy from the trans-Atlantic to Asia Pacific. Will there be a reversal of this shift back to the trans-Atlantic via the Northern Tier? Will Russia re-emerge as a major power?
There is little doubt that the developments taking place in the Arctic will have significant and perhaps even irreversible impacts on the global ecology, the global economy and the distribution of political power. These developments have so far remained off the radar in most of the world. A good case can be made for countries like India and China and other emerging countries leading an initiative to put this item on the international agenda. The next G-20 Summit in Paris could be a good place to begin a dialogue on the subject.
The author is a former Foreign Secretary and is currently Chairman, RIS and Senior Fellow, CPR