Climate change and global warming are among the main concerns of this time. The earth is losing its polar caps at an unprecedented rate. Instead of finding solutions to avoid this crisis, the big 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 temperature of the earth has increased by 0.08 degrees Celsius per decade since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The “heat dome” over the Pacific Northwest and parts of Canada, formed in the summer of 2021, has left millions of people suffering. Globally, 37% of all heat-related deaths between 1981 and 2018 are due to global warming. NASA reported that the decadal loss of Arctic ice was 13.1 percent between 1981 and 2010. Scientific researchers recorded the lowest concentration of ice in the Arctic in August 2020.
The only option available to fight this crisis is to reduce global GHG emissions. There was a brief drop in emissions in 2020 due to lockdowns related to Covid. But these changes are brief and temporary. Oil demand is expected to increase by 5 million barrels per day during the second half of 2021.
To make matters worse, there has been a battle for control of the hydrocarbons made accessible by the melting Arctic ice caps. According to the rules established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the nations bordering the Arctic can claim 22 km of territorial waters. An additional 370 km of their coastline can be considered their “exclusive economic zone”. Beyond this point, the maritime area is considered as “international waters” which could be conserved as a common heritage of humanity.
To transform the entire pristine Arctic into a hydrocarbon exploration area, all the nations bordering the Arctic are urging re-ratification of UNCLOS. After re-ratification, nations would have ten years to file claims over an extended continental shelf. Upon approval, that particular nation would obtain the exclusive right to all resources above or below the sea in that region. The United States has signed but has not yet ratified UNCLOS.
Another political issue that has contributed to the melting of the Arctic ice caps is the improvement of the navigability of the northern oceans. Previously, although most of the Arctic was designated as international waters, there was no shipping due to ice barriers. Now that that is gone, international waters can be used by any nation for navigation. This puts pressure on NATO countries as well as Russia, which has the most advanced naval power in the world.
In 2014, Denmark claimed 895,000 square kilometers of arctic continental shelf extending from its possession, Greenland, including the North Pole to the border of Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Canada also claims part of the Arctic, including the North Pole. Russia is trying to establish its claims in the region via its continental shelf extended to the North Pole. Canada and Denmark are vying for jurisdiction over an uninhabited arctic island. This indicates how important every point in the Arctic is in this ongoing power and control game.
Ecologically, the entire Arctic region suffers enormously: global warming links the melting of permanent reserves of ice, the ongoing exploration of hydrocarbons and the increase in temperature. In the absence of food, polar bear attacks have increased exponentially in the Arctic. Polar bears would jump from one ice cap to another in search of seals, their traditional prey. But as the ice melts, the seas reduce the seaworthiness of bears and make it easier for their prey to escape attack. Global warming is starving bears to extinction.
Exploration for hydrocarbons in the Arctic creates untold environmental damage. The Norilsk oil spill on May 29, 2020 resulted in the spill of 17,500 tonnes of diesel fuel.
The polar regions play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of the biosphere. All Arctic nations should work together to stop the unprecedented melting of this Arctic ice cap and protect this habitat, instead of fighting for its control.
The authors are respectively associate professor, independent researcher and dean of the Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.