Climate change and global warming are among the foremost concerns of this era. The earth is losing its polar ice caps at an unprecedented rate. Instead of finding solutions to avert this crisis, major world players are fighting to control and exploit the untapped hydrocarbon reserves of the Arctic.
Global warming is a major concern of this century. The earth’s temperature has increased by 0.08 degree Celsius per decade since the advent of the industrial revolution. The ‘Heat dome’ over the Pacific Northwest and parts of Canada, formed during the summer of 2021, has resulted in the suffering of millions. Globally, 37 per cent of all heat-related deaths between 1981 and 2018 have been due to global warming. NASA reported that the decadal loss of Arctic ice was 13.1 per cent between 1981 and 2010. Scientific investigators recorded the lowest ice concentration in the Arctic in August 2020.
The only option available to combat this crisis is reducing global GHG emissions. There was a brief drop in emissions during 2020 due to Covid-related lockdowns. But these changes are brief and temporary. Oil demands are predicted to rise by 5 million barrels per day during the second half of 2021.
To make the situation even worse, there has been a battle over control of hydrocarbons made accessible by the melting of Arctic ice caps. According to rules set down by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Arctic-bordering nations can claim 22 km as their territorial waters. Another 370 km from their coasts can be treated as their ‘Exclusive Economic Zone.’ Beyond that point, the sea area is regarded as ‘international waters’ that could be conserved as the common heritage of humankind.
To turn the whole pristine Arctic into a hydrocarbon exploration zone, all the Arctic-bordering nations are urging a re-ratification of the UNCLOS. After the re-ratification, nations would get ten years to file claims over an extended continental shelf. Upon approval, that particular nation would get the exclusive right over any above-sea or below-sea resources in this region. The US has signed but has not yet ratified the UNCLOS.
Another political problem that has contributed to the melting of Arctic ice sheets is the improved navigability of the northern oceans. Previously, though the major part of Arctic was designated as international waters, there was no navigation due to the ice barriers. Now with that gone, the international waters can be used by any nation for navigation. This is putting pressure on the NATO countries as well as Russia, which boasts the world’s most advanced naval power.
In 2014, Denmark claimed 895,000 square kilometres of Arctic continental shelf extending from its possession, Greenland, including the North Pole to the border of Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Canada is also claiming a chunk of the Arctic including the North Pole. Russia is trying to establish its claims in the region via its extended continental shelf as far as the North Pole. Canada and Denmark are competing over the jurisdiction of an uninhabited Arctic island. This indicates how important every point of the Arctic is in this ongoing power and control game.
Ecologically, the whole Arctic region is suffering immensely: Global warming links the melting of permanent ice reserves, ongoing hydrocarbon explorations and increasing temperature. In the absence of food, polar bear attacks have increased exponentially over the Arctic. Polar bears used to hop from one ice cap to another in search of seals, their traditional prey. But with melting ice, the seas are reducing the navigability of the bears as well as making it easier for their prey to escape attack. Global warming is starving the bears to extinction.
Exploration for hydrocarbons in the Arctic creates untold environmental damage. The Norilsk diesel oil spill on 29 May 2020 resulted in the spillage of 17,500 tonnes of diesel oil.
The polar regions play a crucial role in maintaining the balance in the biosphere. All Arctic nations should work together to stop this unprecedented Arctic ice cap melting and protect this habitat, instead of fighting over its control.
The writers are, respectively, Associate Professor, Independent researcher, and Dean at Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.