Back 21.10.2010

The Arctic region – from a forgotten desert to the center of the world’s attention

Greetings from Brussels where Arctic Futures Symposium has 14 – 15 October discussed, under the leadership of Prince Albert II of Monaco and EU President Rompuy, the futures of the Arctic. The Arctic has recently become one of the hotspots of world politics, and it is the area that paradoxically and tragically symbolizes climate change.

The presentations by leading scientists on climate change and its particular impacts on the Arctic did not leave anyone cold. The pace of melting sea-ice is accelerating and, unfortunately, we may be already beyond the tipping point – with no-way back. The melting in Greenland alone raises the sea level already by 1 mm/year. And that number is growing – the sea level may rise up to 7 meters above the current sea level in only few decades. Flora and fauna – including the last polar bears and some of the world’s largest fisheries – are doing their best to adapt to changes that are scarily rapid.

At the same time, the withdrawing ice is giving way to new economic opportunities. The Arctic region hosts some of the world’s largest undiscovered oil and gas reserves, two of the world’s largest fisheries, a massive number of lucrative minerals, and new shipping routes.

These two aspects – global warming and its effects on the Arctic as well as the new economic interests amplified by the high oil price – make Arctic the hotspot where everyone wants their share.

Since the science is already there to guide the priorities and urgency of action, the issue is governance. Much of the discussion on the Arctic governance focuses on the Arctic Council. It was established in 1996 to deal with sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. It is a consensus-based and project-driven body with 8 member states working along with groups of indigenous peoples. Many consider this soft-law body toothless to sort out the daunting challenges. Some question if only 8 Arctic states can deal with problems caused by all world, and problems that will left no-one untouched. Others note that the Arctic Council is one of the organizations that has worked successfully for peace and security in the region.

Other bodies, such as the European Union, are seeking to become more active within the Arctic Council. Interestingly, one of the recent decisions of the European Parliament to ban seal hunting caused a reaction in some of the indigenous NGOs of the Arctic, and consequently, the EU was not accepted as an official observer to the Arctic Council.

It is all about economics – and politics. While we all claim to care for the environment in the Arctic, everyone has other national interests to protect, too. While many of the environmental research projects are suffering from shortage of funds, coastal states are pouring millions on the assessment of the underwater structures – continental shelf – to back their claims of extended territories. We all learned of the Russian expedition which placed a Russian flag in the bottom of the Arctic Sea in 2007. A few months later, the scientist who was behind the famous flagging was elected to the Russian Duma. It is not a coincidence that the Arctic Symposium – a talking shop by scientists and practitioners – was also followed by representatives from major oil companies and defense industry corporations.

The Arctic is not only about polar bears. It is also about 4 million people out of which many would like to maintain their traditional cultures and ways of living. Interestingly, some of the loudest voices in the discussion about the futures of the Arctic come from representatives of Greenland. For Greenland, the on-going climate change is also a great opportunity – it brings along economic possibilities with access to new natural resources (minerals), extended agricultural possibilities, stronger shipping industry and tourism, and so forth. Many politicians from Greenland point out their right to govern their own country and their natural resources, and Greenland has departed from the EU and sought to depart from the Kingdom of Denmark.

Finland played a very significant role in establishing the Arctic Council. The new Arctic Strategy of Finland recognizes that Finland (still) could play a role in finding solutions to protect the environment of the Arctic and in promoting sustainable use of its natural resources. Finland has expressed a wish to host a high-level Arctic conference, and the Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi, Lapland, wants to become the EU’s Arctic Information Centre. These initiatives have been well-received but, in the context of the current debate, will have to be further developed to gain political attention.

With the mounting stakes in the game, innovative solutions for sustainability are indeed on demand.

Pasi Rinne is the Chairman of Gaia Group, and a founding partner of the enterprise. He has profound experience in international environmental governance and diplomacy, environmental management tools and climate change. He is internationally well-known policy-maker and environmental thinker.