Author : Kapil Narula
10 Feb 2015

The Arctic is a unique region which plays a very important role in the earth’s ecosystem. It regulates the earth’s climate, influences the ocean currents, has rich biodiversity and is home to a substantial indigenous population. Therefore, sustainability should be a prerequisite condition for development in the Arctic.

‘Sustainability’ is the ability of a system to continue a desired behaviour indefinitely. An example of such a sustainable system is tropical rain forests in which the inherent processes continue in a cyclic manner to support life. On the other hand, ‘development’ is the process of growth. When these two words are conjoined it implies ‘continuous growth’. Hence the word ‘Sustainable Development’ is actually an oxymoron because any kind of growth cannot be indefinite.

While ‘Sustainable Development’ is rightly understood as a multi-dimensional concept, having economic, environmental and social dimensions, an extended definition also includes inter and intra-generational equity as well as inter-species equity, as its fundamental principles. However, people often misunderstand it as simultaneous and continued growth in all three dimensions. This understanding is flawed as these dimensions have competing goals and therefore there has to be a trade-off between these goals. As an example, any kind of economic growth has negative environmental externalities and there may be accompanying social impacts which may lead to collapse of societies. Therefore sustainable development needs to be perceived in a way that explicitly conveys the core idea that the growth of the economy and the society is constrained by environmental limits.

If ‘Sustainable Development’ of the Arctic region is viewed from the above perspective, one is forced to define environmental limits prior to looking at economic opportunities in the region. Further, the impact of development in the region on culture, societies and the traditional way of living of the indigenous people should also be minimal. Hence it is important that any activities which are undertaken in the Arctic region should be carefully examined for the foreseeable impacts which they might have on the region as well as on the ecosystem of the earth.
Let us consider two major issues which are threatening the sustainability of the Arctic region: ‘resources’ and ‘routes’. The scramble between Arctic nations to control both these and the intent of extra regional powers to share the trickledown benefits, have resulted in countries engaging in active geopolitics on the Arctic. While some countries like India are keenly interested in science in order to increase their understanding of climate change, other countries such as South Korea are looking at the economic benefits which they can reap as fallout of increased shipping in the region. 

Let’s talk about resources first. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the region contains 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 15 per cent of its oil. These valuable energy resources have been fossilised over millions of years. From the viewpoint of sustainability, the ‘strong sustainability’ condition defines that the ‘economic capital’ (produced capital such as infrastructure, knowledge etc.), and ‘natural capital’ (environmental assets such as fossil fuels, biodiversity and other ecosystem structures) are complimentary, but not interchangeable. This implies that natural capital needs to be preserved sufficiently, as it has to be passed to the next generation and cannot be replaced with economic capital. Hence the amount of fossil fuels and minerals which can be extracted from the Arctic region should be limited to the regeneration rates of these resources. Obviously, this would mean that only miniscule amounts of resources can be extracted and therefore the strong sustainability condition is difficult to meet, in the case of energy and mineral resources. An alternate interpretation for resources can be as follows: the non-renewable resources which are extracted should be replaced by an equivalent amount of substitutes for that resource. This interpretation can however serve as a prerequisite condition for resource extraction, if the Arctic has to be developed sustainably.

The strong sustainability condition is often diluted to a ‘weak sustainability’ condition which allows unconditional substitution between economic and natural capital. This implies that natural resources may be used as long as economic capital is increased. Proponents of this approach claim that the energy which is extracted now, can be used to increase economic capital, so that the total amount of capital for the next generation remains unchanged. However, most often this weak sustainability condition is also violated and the extracted resources are consumed by the existing generation without a thought for the future generations.

On the issue of new shipping routes, the strong sustainability condition in the Arctic region would be met as long as the rates of waste generation from shipping and related activities do not exceed the assimilative capacity of the Arctic eco-system. This condition therefore requires that while the shipping routes may be used, there should be stringent environmental regulations controlling the operation of shipping in the region. Notwithstanding the strict enforcement of rules, the environmental risks remains high due the uncertain nature of floating ice, harsh climatic condition, risk of human or technical failure and the fragile nature of the environment.  An oil spill either from offshore drilling or accidents at sea, marine pollution due to leaks and untreated waste disposal at sea are other challenges, which will have an impact on the marine environment in the region. However, as long as the environmental impact on the ecosystem is within the acceptable limits, shipping in the region could be classified as sustainable. But the question is “Do we have enough know-how on the Arctic ecosystem to even attempt defining such limits?”  Further, what is the guarantee that there would be no accidents such as those involving the drilling ships, ‘Noble Discoverer’ and the ‘Kulluk’, operated by Shell off the Alaskan coast in 2013 which led to suspension of further drilling in the region. The answers to these questions are not easy and hence prior to allowing navigation of ships through the ice floes infested waters, one must carefully examine the environmental risks which the region is exposed to, if unrestricted shipping is allowed. 

It can, therefore, be concluded that there are many challenges to sustainable development of the Arctic region. However, such a possibility exists, provided stringent rules and regulations are followed for shipping and a limited amount of resource extraction is permitted in the region. How would this development unfold, is a question which none can predict, but one can only hope that the Arctic Council adopts some guidelines which imposes certain limits and restriction on shipping and resource exploration activities in the Arctic region. 


(*The author is a Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Indian Navy or National Maritime Foundation. He can be reached at

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