As the impact of climate change intensifies in the Arctic, and the issues move from a regional to global stage, the Arctic Council faces substantial challenges to ensure a sustainable future for the North. 'Ive been fortunate to attend the Arctic Council ministerial summit in Kiruna, Sweden representing the Advisory Committee for the Protection of the Sea (ACOPS). This meeting sees a transition from Swedish to Canadian leadership of the Council and a new set of priorities and challenges emerge for Arctic governance.
The challenges for the Arctic are environmental, social and economic and are deeply entwined. While this is not new, specific recognition of their inter-related nature is relatively recent. The warning signs are increasingly there… disappearing summer sea ice, acidification of polar seas, shifting patterns of biodiversity as species shift their ranges northwards and habitats change due to climatic stress – all driven by human induced climate change. At the same time the Arctic is ‘open for business’ and while the reality of resource extraction is still in its infancy, the seriousness of the situation and the grave consequences of an oil spill are recognised. The Arctic Council was certainly saying the right words… Senator John Kerry, the US Secretary of State railed against the lack of international and domestic action on climate change and pressed for a global agreement with China…. But can the Arctic Council and its members deliver meaningful action and influence global outcomes?
The tone of the summit today was one where the immense challenges are recognised, and there seems to be real effort in negotiating the issues and moving forward. Don’t forget that this is really quite a difficult thing where eight countries (US, Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark – Greenland, Finland, Iceland) and 6 indigenous permanent members are pushing for their view of a sustainable Arctic. Not to mention the hustle from new observers all vying for their vision of the Arctic.
Today saw some noteworthy outcomes that indicate positive steps. The Ministers signed off on a legally binding agreement on oil pollution preparedness and response. This, while not perfect, will build capacity across the Arctic states to prevent spills from occurring and to coordinate in the case of (a disastrous) spill. There is some way to go to develop this capacity across the region and I’m sympathetic for calls for oil and gas development moratoriums until the regime is firmly in place. However, this is essentially happening in several areas… the US has pulled back from oil exploration off the Alaskan coast, Greenland has put in place new regulations and is limiting exploration, and Norway is exercising a very cautious approach. Russia is the wildcard and it is calling in partnerships from oil and gas companies (e.g. Shell, BP and Dong Energy) to develop the technical capability. However, exploration is risky, technically difficult and overtly expensive – major risks to any project and several (such as the Russian gas development Shtokman) have been delayed by several years.
The Arctic Council appears to be embracing its role as a policy making rather than policy shaping organisation. This was the 2nd legally binding agreement out of the Council (the 1st being a Search and Rescue treaty) and there are moves to develop a task force and agreement on addressing black carbon. This appears to be a sensitive subject with the Russian Foreign minister accused by Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North for delaying progress on the issue. A permanent secretariat now exists in Norway for the Arctic council and there is a clear mandate for the Arctic Council to be more aggressive on the international stage, in particular with a commitment for all Arctic states to work together with other countries for a legal agreement on climate change no later than 2015. Time will tell….
Finally… in a significant development in the history of the council, China, Japan, Korea, India, and Italy have been awarded permanent observer status. The decision on the EU, again, has been delayed to next year, but rumours suggest it will eventually succeed. Although not widely discussed, I also heard Greenpeace was not successful in its application to be an observer. The observer tent is now considerably large – over 300 people attended today – and represents States, non-government and indigenous groups….a question is will the Council be able to cope with this influx of interests. One thing that appears certain is that the Arctic is now a global issue and spreads beyond the borders of the Arctic states.
Canada now takes over the helm. Its objective is to focus on the human dimensions of the Arctic and improve conditions for indigenous residents, open up economic opportunities, and place indigenous knowledge alongside scientific information in making assessments. The spotlight is firmly on Canada and the Arctic Council to ensure that development does not undermine the ecological or cultural values of the Arctic… summed up beautifully by the Saami Council representative:
‘Energy security is only valid when underpinned by ecological security’.
A valid and insightful comment. More from Sustainable Seas soon.