In May 2021, Russia will be the new chair of the Arctic Council, the multilateral body of northerly nations aiming to preserve the pristine Arctic realms. Russia, the largest country in the Arctic, will have come a full circle in its association with the Council with its second chair position after its 2004-2006 tenure. Iceland, the smallest country in this multilateral body and its current chair, will pass on the baton to Russia for two years. By the time Russia completes its chair tenure, India will have also completed a decade of being an observer state of the Arctic Council.
There are four observations in this Arctic moment: Russia’s new and preemptive climate action driven geopolitics; India’s newly acquired climate action champion credentials; India’s potential contribution to the Council via its energy and technology partnership with Russia and other Arctic Council partners; and the sincerity of China’s self-aggrandizing title of a ‘near-Arctic’ state.
The Arctic Ocean and its littoral Tundra regions, are among the planet’s most vulnerable to climate change. To address this issue, the West’s Arctic policy has accommodated ‘climate action activism’ and ‘climate action solutionism’ in its domestic and international political activities for decades. Where activism has sensitized the masses globally, solutionism has led to few but critical climate action scientific and technology breakthroughs. Russia, though, was always reticent in this domain, mainly because of its vast resource-driven economy, and because the climate action discourse has been skewed towards Western interests.
Of late, Russia has begun to recognize the growing significance of climate change in its actionable domestic and global goals. Early in November 2020, President Vladimir Putin signed a presidential decree committing a to a 30% decrease in its greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, by 2030. The impact of this new-found attention is also visible in the agenda Russia has set for its Arctic Council chair tenure. Russia wants to promote consensus-driven, environmentally-sustainable social and economic development while simultaneously implementing eco-friendly projects and making the Northern Sea Route (NSR) less inimical to the fragile Arctic environment.
Many Western nations are still far behind in terms of their nationally determined contributions pledged to Paris Agreement. In contrast this year, in 2020, India has already reduced the national gross domestic product’s emission intensity by 21% from the 2005 levels this year, and is well on the path of reducing the emission intensity by 33%-35% by 2030, as committed in the Paris Agreement. In fact, India is the only G20 country to meet its Paris goals. New Delhi can begin to use its strong climate action credentials, mainly achieved since 2014, to help its multilateral positioning and strengthen relations with partner capitals.
India is only an observer in the Arctic Council. Unlike China, it does not wrongly claim to be a ‘near-Arctic’ nation nor a stakeholder littoral nation. Nevertheless, India fathoms the domino effect of climate change in the Arctic region on India’s environment and its comprehensive national security, despite not being an Arctic or near-Arctic country. Shrinking ice shelves in the Arctic Ocean and the large natural emissions of permafrost methane in the Arctic Tundra can cause natural calamities and extreme weather events in the Indian subcontinent. That being so, India’s stake in the Arctic Council’s climate action pursuits are no less crucial than the member countries. Accordingly, India works closely with many Arctic Council members and observers, on several common interest climate action goals. For example, India has signed a memorandum of understanding with Finland for developing cooperation in the domain of environmental protection and biodiversity conservation in November 2020. With the U.S, India has a fully functional Climate and Clean Energy Cooperation Agreement since 2015.
With Russia’s chair position, India can align its national interest goals with those of the Russians and the Arctic Council’s shared aspirations. India imports a substantial amount of fossil fuel originating from the fields of the Russian Arctic and the Russian Far East. Lowering the emissions from the Indian and Russian energy sector, using cutting edge nanotechnology-based carbon capture, can become a new pivot of modern Indo-Russia relations and a spin-off of their existing energy cooperation. This decarbonization pivot, mainly revolving around industrial methane and carbon black emissions, can also fit with the Arctic Contaminants Action Program, a working group project of the Arctic Council.
Although India is far-away from the Arctic, its status, that of an economic powerhouse, will help the NSR and benefit from it. India has interests in securing an alternate trade waterway that the NSR provides as well as access the natural resources possessed by the Arctic Council partners. Nevertheless, India also realizes that an environmentally sustainable NSR with a healthy and pristine Arctic climate is much more critical than a water-logged and contaminated NSR. India’s climate action credentials have demonstrated the importance of tangible ‘climate action solutionism’ and this will undoubtedly attract all pragmatic governments, inter-government bodies towards India. So, India can find commonalities with the Russian agenda during the latter’s Arctic Council presidency.
India has trade and energy interests in the Arctic, but the road to these interests passes through observing the environmental safeguards, as identified in the Paris Agreement. India’s growing experience in the Arctic Council, its strong bilateral relation with most Arctic Council members, and observers should push it to draft a science-based, solution-driven, and environmentally sustainable National Arctic Policy at the earliest.
Dr. Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.
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