The Arctic Environment – Why Europe should care

Speech Published 23 Jan 2007 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Speech by Professor Jacqueline McGlade at Arctic Frontiers Conference, Tromsø, 23 January 2007

Professor Jacqueline McGlade
Executive Director, European Environment Agency

Arctic Frontiers Conference, Tromsø
23 January 2007

Introductory Remarks

On behalf of the European Environment Agency I am delighted to have this opportunity to contribute to your discussions on the Arctic, in particular the environmental challenges that face the region, and to offer some views on how to move from analysis to action in the future.

I will begin by highlighting the main environmental issues as highlighted by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, and in the EEA/UNEP joint report, and then go on to examine  questions about environmental security, existing legal regimes and governance in an attempt to answer the question - who is responsible for the Arctic?

Key environmental issues of concern in the Arctic

A great deal of attention in the media and within political circles is currently devoted to addressing climate change. Recently, this has been translated into articles in the press on the consequences of rapid changes in both polar regions over the coming decades, and the effects of these changes on the rest of the planet. Some of the changes cited in the Arctic include the reduction of sea-ice thickness and extent over the coming decades, the melting and loss of the Greenland ice sheet and the impact on sea levels, the freshening of water in the marine environment, changes in rainfall and an increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme meteorological events, the acidification of the oceans through changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide and sea temperature, the loss of carbon draw down in the oceans because of the subsequent changes in the ability of key plankton to form shells, the release of methane through melting of the permafrost, and overall structural changes in the Arctic ecosystem due to changes in ocean temperature and irradiance during the summer months.

It has been also been noted that although the Arctic’s unique nature is relatively undisturbed, there are growing signs of threats that could potentially destabilise the sustainable utilisation by indigenous peoples. Amongst the threats are the changes caused by industrial activities and infrastructure developments in the region and their associated impacts on the distribution, health and availability of wildlife resources. The strategic importance of the Arctic Ocean and its neighbouring seas also means that there are likely to be increased pressures and the potential for accidental pollution through an increased volume of maritime transport. More worrying, are the inequalities that have built up in the distribution of economic benefits arising from the exploitation of natural resources, with industrialised countries outside the Arctic being the primary beneficiaries of Arctic resources.

Other threats include the overexploitation or damage to natural resources: for example the over-harvesting of certain key fish stocks,  the mismanagement of areas of Arctic forest and unsustainable logging practices, the severe pollution from mining activities and metal ore processing plants  that has laid waste to taiga and tundra, and the impacts of infrastructure developments and operational accidents in the oil and gas sector on land fragmentation, reindeer husbandry, biodiversity, and the overall quality of surface and marine waters. 

Europe is known to be a significant source of pollutants in the Arctic, contaminating the region via long-range air and water transport. The pollutants include heavy metals and organic chemicals, which do not breakdown easily in the environment, and volatile persistent organic pollutants and mercury, which are deposited in the Arctic via condensation from cold air masses and photochemical reactions. Many persistent organic pollutants are now found concentrated in the fatty tissues of animals that indigenous peoples rely on for food, with the result that the Inuit peoples of Greenland and Canada have some of the highest exposures to mercury and POPs in the world. New contaminants – e.g. flame retardants- are also being detected in the Arctic, with unknown health effects. European nuclear reprocessing plants are the second largest source of historical radioactive contamination in the Arctic. There are also numerous military and civilian nuclear installations and equipment in the Arctic that pose a risk of large scale air-borne contamination.

But perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Arctic is how to reconcile the rapidly increasing number of demands for resources in a way that respects the democratic processes of individual nation states but at the same time does not compromise the future of indigenous peoples and others living in the region. From work undertaken by the EEA on future scenarios, it is clear that dealing with the range of problems and demands in a piecemeal fashion is likely to lead to conflicts and a loss of peace and security.

Environmental security the Arctic?

Environmental security is widely accepted to mean that the basic needs of life can be sustained from the environment. Today, long after the cold war has died down, the Arctic differs geopolitically from other international regions such as the Middle East or Southeast Asia. The main reason is that the circumpolar north is made up of peripheral parts of a number of states whose centres of gravity in political terms lie in capitals located well to the south. Moscow has exercised control over the Russian North, Copenhagen has ruled Greenland, Ottawa has governed the Canadian arctic, and Washington has made policy decisions about Alaska. As a result, most Arctic issues have long been treated as peripheral to national priorities and so it is worth examining whether environmental security can be truly secured given this context.

The circumpolar region has not necessarily fared badly through this arrangement; indeed the level of benign neglect that has occurred has probably helped conserve much of the arctic wilderness. Added to this, is the fact that the Arctic is the sparsely populated homeland of 10 million indigenous peoples, each with their own long and complex history and who are largely preoccupied with their own affairs.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union changed the region irrevocably. It released a dynamism of enthusiasm to work co-operatively in the region the, outcome of which has been a plethora of initiatives from combating radioactive contamination in northwestern Russia to the creation of regional and local forms of governance. These have led to an intensification of east west interactions and a growing sense of independence from the southern capitals amongst indigenous peoples.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the Arctic has thus emerged as a region of international significance – worthy of its own Lonely Planet guide. In effect, this remote area once the subject of romantic visions of igloos, icebergs and polar bears has entered the modern world of global commercialism with its wide range of associations and self-interests.

The Arctic today contains a wide array of neophyte initiatives and co-operative actions, ranging from experiments with new systems of land tenure and resource management (e.g., co-management arrangements associated with the settlement of aboriginal land claims), to the devolution of authority to peripheral areas as in the creation of the North Slope Borough in Alaska (1972), the Greenland Home Rule (1979), and the Nunavut Territory in Canada. But it is as yet unclear if these are sufficient to underpin a coherent approach for the successful and sustainable governance of the region.

How then do the institutions and legal regimes that already exist, establish their roles and rules of precedence in relation to one another and very specifically how can region-wide bodies such as the Arctic Council play a lead in the future development of the Arctic? Where should the leadership come from? And will it ensure environmental security in the Arctic?

Experience tells us that when communities have a shared mental model of core values and basic principles that define meaningful goals, it is possible to have both diversity and decisiveness, leadership and subsidiarity, a short term perspective that does not compromise the long term, and self-interests aligned with the common good.  Such seemingly contradictory aspects can be made mutually supportive, but for the benefits to be secured a set of basic principles need to be agreed upon that are verifiable, generic, practical enough for scrutinizing today's situations as well as of proposed visions and able to be endorsed across cultures. Is it feasible to have a shared mental model amongst the Arctic communities?

One obvious model is environmental security, seen here from the perspective of the indigenous peoples and other dependent populations living in the Arctic. Given the concerns raised about climate change, environmental degradation, and inequities in benefit-sharing, can we be sure of ensuring such a basic goal? Moreover, should others be included – for example those who see the Arctic as a global commons and have come to rely on its resources?

To ensure environmental security, we will also need to find ways to avoid crisis-generating tipping points and conflict, characteristic of the ad-hoc approach adopted in many other parts of the world.  We will need to move towards a situation where we can recognise the very real dangers of extrapolating today’s situation, where we can plan with reference to the future rather than the past and treat today’s investments as a basis for further improvements, where we can use the economy as a means to reach dignified sustainable goals for overall well-being and ensure the ecological and social resilience of the region.

At present, the range and complexity of institutions and organisations involved in the governance of the Arctic mitigate against the emergence of such a solution.  This is the real challenge to be faced in the Arctic.

Are legal regimes the solution?

The First UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, in 1958, produced four global conventions – on the high seas, the territorial sea and the contiguous zone, the continental shelf, and fishing and conservation of the living resources of the high seas. By 1982, third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea had succeeded in producing a comprehensive Convention covering all segments of the ocean space, codifiying changes that had occurred in customary international law, most saliently the right of coastal states to establish 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and specifying rules on a wide range of uses.

Two dimensions should be kept in mind when examining the LOSC in the Arctic: the spatial segment, and type of activity. The general pattern is that the right of coastal states to set and enforce rules on various activities decreases with distance from the coastline. With respect to navigation, due to its global nature, the set of measures that coastal states can take unilaterally is constrained in the territorial sea, which may extend 12 miles from the baselines; it is even further restrained in the EEZ.

A coastal state also enjoys exclusive management authority over resources found in the continental shelf, including those parts that extend beyond 200 miles from the baselines. The resources found on the deep sea bed beyond the continental are defined as the ‘common heritage of mankind’ and made subject to a specific regime. Beyond its EEZ and continental shelf, a coastal state generally has few rights or obligations that are not also held by others, except that conservation measures under regional fisheries management regimes on stocks straddling between an EEZ and the high seas area are to be compatible with coastal state measures.

Particular rules apply to spatial areas with certain physical or socio-economic characteristics, such as enclosed or semi-enclosed seas, or straits used in ice-covered areas. Article 234 on ice-covered areas originated in Canada’s concern with foreign vessel traffic in the Canadian Arctic, and enables coastal states to pass and enforce especially strict vessel-source pollution rules.

In some areas, such as conservation and use of shared fisheries resources, the Law of the Sea Convention strongly encourages regional management regimes. Thus, in adopting laws and regulations to prevent, reduce and control such pollution, states ‘shall endeavour to harmonize their policies in this connection at the appropriate regional level’.

In some other issue areas, however, the LOSC restricts the leeway for regional action, by setting either ‘floors’ or ‘ceilings’ for regional regimes. An important example of substantive floors, or minimum standards, are the provisions on dumping. Arctic institutions, especially the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation which involves the foreign ministries of Norway, Russia, the UK and the USA, have played an important role in improving Russia’s treatment facilities for low-level waste, thereby enabling it to join a global ban on dumping of such material. While dumping is subject to minimum requirements, the LOSC sets maximum standards for rules on other kinds of vessel pollution by foreign vessels – and those are lower, the further away from the coastline a vessel operates.

The Law of the Sea Convention entered into force in 1994 and is legally binding on those 149 parties that have ratified or acceded to the Convention. Included here are all the Arctic states except the USA. Important parts of the Convention, including the EEZ concept and the width of the territorial sea, have now entered into the body of customary law and are therefore binding on all states whether or not they have joined the Convention. The net result has been a surge of activity amongst Arctic states to place claims that stretch to the 0° point on the world.

In addition to the Law of the Sea, member states have separately and in the case of the European Union, en bloc, entered into a number of multi-lateral environmental agreements that are also relevant to the Arctic. These include:

  • Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
  • Convention on Biological Diversity
  • Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animal
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
  • Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal
  • Convention on Long range Transboudary Air Pollution
  • UNEP Regional Seas programme
  • Vienna Convention on protection of the Ozone Layer
  • United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • Convention on Access tp Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters
  • Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (Espoo)

Is there a need for a comprehensive and integrated Arctic regime comparable to the Antarctic Treaty System for the southern polar region and would the establishment of legally binding international arrangement substantially improve conditions likely to secure sustainable development of the Arctic?

The most likely answer is probably not at this moment in time. Rather it would be more realistic to propose a protocol under the LOSC for the Polar Ocean. This would allow concerns about new shipping routes, new fishing grounds and gas and oil exploration to be properly addressed.  (It is only for historical reasons that existing regional treaties under LOSC deals only with fisheries. According to the convention, any relevant issue can be taken up).

On the other hand the debate about strengthening the multilateral environmental agreements has gained considerable attention and support from the Arctic Parliamentarians and the Nordic Council of Ministers and was discussed in some detail at a recent meeting in Arendal. The proposal would be to build in new mechanisms under them – something which again seems very realistic. There would thus be a need for the Arctic and Nordic Councils to examine the binding obligations of the existing MEAs on those states that have ratified them, the effects on states which have not, their overall compatibility and in the end whether the various agreements and laws can be enforced.

Today’s Governance

Even the most cursory examination of today’s organisations in the circumpolar north shows that the majority are less than 20 years old. During the course of the twentieth century three key initiatives stand out, the North Pacific Sealing Convention aimed at conservation of the northern fur seal in the Bering Straits and  the 1920 Treaty of Spitzbergen, establishing the Svalbard Archipelago demilitarised regime under the sovereignty of Norway; and the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and their habitats.

The key circumpolar organisations today include: the Arctic Council (1996), the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (1993); Indigenous People’s Secretariat (1993); International Arctic Science Committee (1990); Nordic Council of Ministers (1971); Northern Forum (1991); Standing Committee of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region (1994); UNEP/GRID-Arendal (1989) and the University of the Arctic (1997). In addition to the countries of the region, and the European Commission, many of these organisations include observers from outside the Arctic.

If we take two key issues –sustainable exploitation of the marine ecosystem and climate change - how should the Arctic Council and EU be expected to play out their various roles in delivering policies for the Arctic in the future?

Integrated management of the marine ecosystem

Internationally, there is a movement through the United Nations to implement the ecosystem approach to managing the seas – this is now part of several international treaties. As we can see from recent analyses, there are limits as to how much human pressure the Arctic coastal and marine ecosystems can withstand.

In December 2006 the European Council of Ministers reached political agreement on a draft directive establishing a framework for
community action in the field of marine environmental policy. The draft directive aims to establish a framework to preserve, prevent the deterioration and restore the marine environment, through the development by Member States of marine strategies for marine regions or sub-regions. The objective of the marine strategies is to achieve good environmental status in each marine region. Good environmental status means that seas and oceans are ecologically diverse and dynamic, clean, healthy and productive, their use is at a sustainable level, safeguarding the potential for uses and activities by current and future generations. Marine strategies will be regularly up-dated and made available to the public according to the Community legislation.

The legal basis proposed for a Council decision is a qualified majority where a co-decision procedure with the European Parliament is applicable. The European Parliament delivered its first reading opinion in November 2006 in which it agreed that within two years of coming into force, the Commission shall report  inter alia on the state of the environment of Arctic waters of importance for the Community and propose relevant measures with a view to establishing the Arctic as a protected areas, similar to the Antarctic and designated as a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science”.

Such measures could also serve as a strong set of proposal to put within a Polar Ocean protocol and could include joint mapping, research and monitoring, state of the environment baseline, protected areas, common standards for petroleum extraction and moratoria on destructive fishing practices.

An additional EU aspect of governance derives from the EU Northern Dimension policy, which is the Arctic component of the sub-regional co-operation within the EU Neighbourhood Programme, along with the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Because of the strength of the Nordic member states and the development banks, a number of projects have gone ahead. As a result the Northern Dimension Environment Partnership facility is very effective and receives financial contributions from the Russian Ministry of Finance. But it is still an open question as to how this policy will provide a vehicle to support an annual action programme and how it might facilitate multilateral collaboration in light of the dominance of bilateral projects with Russia.

At the same time, the Norwegian and Russian governments have delivered an important contribution to the future sustainable use of marine resources through its management plan for the Barents Sea.  The Russians have signaled a strong interest in having a common Barents Sea approach based on what they have learned from the Norwegian experience. Concrete projects have started, including state of the environment indicator joint monitoring, mapping initiatives e.g. sea birds, vulnerability analyses and exchange of experience of regulatory measures for the oil and gas sector. The approach here could be an important element for the EU when discussing the marine directive as the basic principles are the same. And the Norwegian chairmanship in the Arctic Council has put forward integrated marine management as one of its first priorities. So here we can see a strong potential for a common set of views and policies to emerge.

Climate change

Climate change is an even more controversial area, given the countries of the Arctic, to consider.

As Chair of the Arctic Council, Norway has a crucial role in creating the political will needed to mitigate the effects of global warming – crucial to future of the Arctic. The country is the third largest petroleum exporter in the world – and a key player in the discussions on energy security. In recent days Norway has pledged to provide Europe with secure energy supplies in light of the difficulties in securing stability of supply from Russia, Statoil and ipso facto Norway will significantly increase its production through expansion of its offshore activities by extending north of Norway towards the border with Russia in the Barents Sea. This is in a disputed area – one that is equivalent to the Norwegian area of the North Sea and which according to the Norwegian pertroleum directorate could contain 29% of all undiscovered resources.

Norway has earned more than 4000 billion NoK since 1970, selling the products that create greenhouse gases when burned in other nations. Norwegian discharges of climate gases are almost 10% above its Kyoto target, and are projected to rise even more, with no national plan as to how to reduce emissions.

International climate negotiations are being taken up by the UN, to see if clear agreements can be achieved for the post-2012 world of the actions that will be taken. But in the meantime, there is a need for the majority of Arctic states that are signatories to Kyoto to fulfill their obligations under the treaty. This is the rationale behind the recent initiative from the EU Commission to unilaterally cut GHG emissions by 20% in 2020. If other industrialised nations follow, the EU will cut its emissions by 30%- an objective the Union will pursue in international negotiations as it sees this as necessary to avoid a global temperature increase above 2 °C, which is assumed a limit to avoid catastrophic detrimental effects e.g. from melting of the Arctic ice.

Politically, such reductions in industrialised countries are a prerequisite for the developing nations, with fast growing emitters such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia, to join the climate regime. So it will be extremely important for Norway to carry out its recently stated aim to join with the EU by matching the targets set out by the Commission last week in Brussels and by helping to bring new initiatives to the negotiation table through an effective policy on domestic GHG reductions thereby moving to a climate friendly economy. To lead by example in the area of climate change will be demanding for any country: for Norway and the Arctic it is crucial.


Although an Arctic treaty is not likely to be feasible or practical, it is important that the Arctic community of parliamentarians, scientists, policy makers and communities press for an internationally agreed approach -  a Polar Ocean protocol under the Law of the Sea Convention -  drawing on the experience from the member states for supplementary mechanisms and instruments, and supplemented by strengthened mechanisms for the Arctic within the wide range of multilateral environmental agreements. Without these in place, it is inconceivable that the institutions and Arctic states on their own will be able to withstand the pressure from within as well as from outside the region to exploit the resources as they become more accessible or scarcer in other parts of the world.

In the early stages, Arctic states and indigenous people’s will need to focus on reducing the impacts of the major sources of pollution mentioned earlier, preventing a rush to exploit all the available resources of the Arctic - another Klondyke – and avoiding the destabilising effects of massive infrastructure developments. To do this will require that member states fully implement their obligations under the wide range of agreements and protocols including LRTAP and Kyoto.

The Arctic Council made up of its member states is in fact the only legitimate institution to oversee this process and must by default assuming a leadership role in this regard. However, it should also be stressed that the European Union and especially its Arctic member states have an extra duty of care – namely to raise awareness of the situation and issues concerning the Arctic and to gain support in all the relevant international settings for increased controls for the protection, conservation and sustainable use of resources in the Arctic region,  building a shared environmental information system for reporting on the state of the environment and evaluating the effectiveness of European and key global environmental policies on the Arctic over the coming decades.

In conclusion then, let me state that the Arctic provides the industrialised world with a critical chance to put into practice all the rhetoric of sustainable development, to move towards  a common vision of sharing resources for the benefit of all the peoples of the region and to showing leadership and at the same time restraint in terms of the wise stewardship of the planet’s natural resources. The challenge now is not to let the opportunity slip away.

Report: Arctic environment: European perspectives



Document Actions