Arctic region briefing - The European environment — state and outlook 2015

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 11 May 2020
11 min read
Photo: © Nikolaj Bock

Brief introduction

The Arctic region consists of the partly ice-covered Arctic Ocean and land areas of the surrounding eight Arctic states; Canada, Denmark (including the Faroe Islands and Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden and the US (Alaska) as well as their shallow sub-regional seas. The Arctic is home to and provides livelihoods for four million people, most of whom live in northern Scandinavia and Russia. This includes three indigenous peoples; the Sami, the Inuit and the Nenets in the European part of the Arctic[1]. The Arctic region is an area of growing strategic importance in terms of increasing access to natural resources and new transport routes as ice and snow conditions are undergoing rapid change. Economic developments are accelerating which can be beneficial for the region and the global economy, yet they will also have repercussions on the Arctic's fragile environment if not managed with care. The Arctic has therefore been identified as a focus region for the European Union (EU) in the 7th Environment Action Programme (7th EAP)[2]. In the Arctic context, the EU maintains strategic partnerships with Canada, Russia and the USA, and has close partnerships with Greenland, Iceland and Norway[3].

The region is varied in many aspects and many parts are characterised as being relatively clean and remote. The high Arctic has an extreme environment and many areas lack infrastructure. An exception to this can be found in the more populated and developed parts of northern Scandinavia and northwest Russia. The overall level of economic activity is still relatively low although it has been increasing in recent decades in certain areas. The region's economy and resources now play a role in a global perspective[4]. This role could increase if the region's potential in natural resources, shipping and tourism are exploited further. This may lead to improved local living conditions and create growth and jobs[5]. Arctic states and international partners are working to ensure a prudent development that limits further Arctic warming or jeopardizing ecosystem resilience. The sensitive Arctic environment is already challenged by rapid changes such as climate change, biodiversity loss and hazardous substances transported over long distances that influence human health. Arctic warming affects traditional ways of life of indigenous peoples, puts stress on ecosystems and can have global implications. Climate change is therefore a threat in terms of Arctic ecosystem resilience and functions[6]. It is also a challenge with regards to ensuring timely adaptation measures, while mitigation efforts are strengthened at a global scale. The EU has increasingly recognised that European activities affect the Arctic environment and that Europe in turn will be influenced by the changes that occur in the region.

In 1991, environmental cooperation in the region was formalised in the Environmental Protection Strategy for the Arctic[7] which in 1996 became the Arctic Council, composed of the eight Arctic states and six Permanent Participants that represent indigenous peoples. It has six working groups coordinating assessments and studies which contribute towards the overall vision of promoting sustainable development in the region. Five member countries of the European Environment Agency (EEA) are members of the Council and seven are observers[8]. The EU is allowed to observe proceedings in the Council until a final decision is made on its application to become an observer[9]. The key challenges facing the region, which are also reflected in the 7th EAP and the EU's Arctic policy (currently under development) can be summarised as follows:

  • increasing economic development of the Arctic;
  • global climate change and its rapid effects on the Arctic;
  • policy developments and international cooperation related to the Arctic.

What are the main problems/threats related to the Arctic region?

Major economic activities take place in the region. Sub-regional Arctic seas now represent more than 10% of global marine fisheries, including large catches in the European part[10]. Similarly, the production of hydrocarbons has increased, including in the Barents and Norwegian seas[11], and about 22% of the world's natural gas and 10% of oil are produced in the Arctic[12]. In 2012, Russia and Norway alone provided more than half of the EU's oil and gas imports[13], much of which was produced in the Arctic region. Arctic shipping is increasing, most significantly to and from Arctic ports but also in trans-Arctic voyages. The Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast has seen an increase from four trips in 2010 to 71 in 2013[14]. Meanwhile, the Northwest Passage through Canadian waters increased from two trips in 2009 to 18 in 2013[15]. In certain areas, Arctic cruise passenger ships are also increasing in numbers and size. These ship numbers are small when comparing globally but with retreating sea ice, there is potential for an increase in trips with shorter travel routes for parts of the year. Sea-based activities in the Arctic are challenging due to waters with varying ice-cover, lack of sea charts, light conditions in winter and remoteness in case of accidents. Remoteness is also a problem when tackling potential pollution incidents. 

The region plays a vital role in the Earth's climate system and energy balance. As reflective snow and ice diminish, due to Arctic warming or black carbon deposits [16], solar energy is increasingly absorbed in the ocean and land area. The Arctic is experiencing rapid warming compared to other parts of the globe[17] causing extensive loss of sea ice[18] (see Figure 1) which in addition to ocean warming has implications for ice-dependant species[19] and for ocean acidification since open waters absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere[20]. The increase in average temperatures since 1980 has been twice as high over the Arctic as it has been over the rest of the world[21]. As a consequence, snow cover has been declining up to 53% in summer[22] and the Greenland ice sheet has been losing mass at an accelerated rate (almost tenfold in the past two decades)[23]This massive loss of ice from the Greenland ice sheet contributes to global sea-level rise[24] which over the next century will leave coastal areas at risk with regards to people, economic assets and coastal ecosystems, including in Europe[25].

Figure 1: Arctic sea-ice extent

Warming conditions thaw permafrost damaging infrastructures and transport systems. Melting permafrost is also a significant source of CO2 and methane to the atmosphere and these emissions can be of significance with regard to keeping global temperature change below a 2 °C increase, as agreed under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)[26].

The region is home to a number of sensitive marine and terrestrial ecosystems[27], some of global importance, as the Arctic is a breeding ground for a number of migrating species. More than half of the world's wetlands are in the Arctic and sub-Arctic region[28]. Climate change is the most serious threat to Arctic biodiversity, not least as the UNFCCC upper limit of 2 °C global warming is projected to result in a temperature increase of 2.8 to 7.8 °C in the Arctic, with severe impacts to biodiversity[29]. Arctic species and ecosystems are also affected by pollution (especially persistent organic pollutants (POPs)[30] and mercury[31]) and marine litter from long-range transport and local sources. Some pollutants accumulate in the food web[32], as cold conditions slow down the degradation processes, while others are absorbed in fatty tissues and released into the animals during the natural seasonal starvation. Local communities with a diet derived mainly from local marine food items are exposed to these pollutants with subsequent health implications. 

International efforts have been made in Arctic observation and monitoring, such as the ongoing Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Programme (CBMP)[33] and the Trends and Effects Monitoring Programme[34], along with the associated pollution assessments under the Arctic Council and the recent International Polar Year[35]. However, there are still many unknowns when it comes to growth in economic activities, forecasting the rate of change, assessing ecosystem responses or understanding the interactions between various drivers of change and their cumulative impacts.

What are the main policy responses to key challenges?

Nationally, Arctic states already have legislation in place to regulate economic developments taking place on their territories. Regionally, the Arctic Council has adopted legally binding agreements regarding search and rescue[36] and oil spills[37] and is making recommendations for policy responses on the basis of scientific assessments. Internationally, a number of conventions and protocols have been put in place to regulate harmful substances such as POPs or mercury[38], to regulate economic activities like shipping[39] or provide guidelines for activities including off-shore oil and gas[40].

In an EU context, the 2014 Council Conclusions for the Arctic[41] call for strengthened EU environmental protection in the Arctic. The EU has demonstrated willingness to contribute actively towards such efforts. Investments in satellite observations in the region[42] and the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (Horizon 2020[43]) will significantly contribute to a better understanding of relevant developments and processes. This includes improved knowledge on the resilience of Arctic ecosystems and identifying potential tipping points which can have large-scale impacts. Such work will help the EU and its partners address some of the potential serious impacts on Europe from a changing Arctic such as from sea-level rise and extreme weather events from climate change.  International scientific cooperation has increased, promoting free and open access to data and avoiding costly duplication, thereby reducing costs while strengthening the knowledge base. The Sustaining Arctic Observation Networks (SAON) initiative[44] and the CBMP are positive steps in that direction.

The Council of the European Union has requested that an integrated and coherent EU Arctic policy be presented by December 2015 building on three overarching objectives proposed by the Commission, namely; i) strengthening the knowledge base to address the challenges from environmental and climate changes; ii) contributing responsibly towards a sustainable development in the region; and iii) intensifying constructive engagement with Arctic states, indigenous peoples and partners regarding challenges that require an international response[45]. This policy will complement existing EU environmental and climate policies which are of relevance in addressing Arctic challenges. The size of any future EU Arctic footprint will be lower if EU Member States are able to adhere to agreed targets, such as reducing greenhouse gases by 40% before 2030 and 80% before 2050 (global emission reductions are also needed)[46], phasing out long-range polluting substances, or moving towards a more resource-efficient and circular economy.

The importance of the Arctic to Europe's environment has been recognised by the EU for some time. The EEA has published a number of reports dedicated to the Arctic[47] and in 2010 the EU produced an EU Arctic footprint report[48] as a response to the geopolitical and environmental changes in the region. Most recently, in 2014, the EU funded a strategic assessment of development in the Arctic[49] with recommendations on how the EU could respond to challenges identified in the assessment. At national level, a dozen EEA member countries are involved in ongoing environmental monitoring and assessment work in the region. These efforts, together with the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[50] and other Arctic partners, have raised the level of understanding of the processes, changes and drivers at play as well as providing data, including some used in EEA indicators[51].

What are the main challenges ahead?

One of the societal challenges will be to balance global energy demands with the need for environmental protection of a sensitive area while not dismissing local and indigenous communities the opportunity for jobs, development, improved living conditions and health standards. Estimates indicate that 13% of undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered gas can be found in the Arctic[52]. Utilising these resources would challenge the transition to a low-carbon society, as outlined in the 7th EAP, since it is recommended that two-thirds of known global fossil resources must remain in the ground if the UNFCCC 2 °C target is to be achieved[53]. An important step in the right direction will be if an ambitious global legally binding agreement on mitigation and adaptation is reached at the UNFCCC's 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) meeting in Paris in 2015. Addressing black carbon emissions in and beyond the Arctic similarly requires an international and regional response, and steps are being taken under the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants[54], where a number of countries and the EU have committed to mitigate short-lived climate pollutants including black carbon.  

Regarding Arctic shipping, further international cooperation is needed to ensure it is safe and clean. Preventing and responding to potential oil spills or search and rescue operations still remain major challenges. An agreement on marine oil spill prevention in the Arctic is expected to be adopted by the Arctic Council and full implementation of such an agreement can address some of the concerns. It remains essential to ratify and implement the International Maritime Organisation's Convention on ballast water management[55] by all coastal states to reduce the risk of introducing alien species in the ecosystems in the Arctic Ocean and sub-regional seas. With increased Arctic shipping, the establishment of support infrastructures, including icebreakers and port facilities, along the northern shipping routes will be needed as well as addressing use and carrying of heavy fuel oils in the Arctic.

It will be a challenge for local and indigenous communities in the region to adapt to climate change. The Arctic Council is currently developing a knowledge base[56] on how drivers interact with and affect people and nature. Adaptation actions, including in the Barents region, are being explored as a key component. Adaptation strategies and best practices are being collected and shared in the EU Climate-Adapt platform[57] as part of the EU strategy on climate change adaptation. The establishment of more protected areas to conserve the region's unique and climate-sensitive wildlife and culturally historic sites, while allowing for local growth and development, is also needed. If appropriate strategies with prudent and integrated management plans are implemented at an early stage, the region can contribute significantly towards the 2050 vision of environmental sustainability as outlined in the 7th EAP.

References and footnotes

[1] The European Arctic is defined from Greenland in the West to the Ural Mountains in Russia to the East. In this part of the Arctic the Sami peoples live in Northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia; the Inuit peoples live in Greenland, Canada and the US/Alaska; and the Nenets peoples live in Nenets Autonomous Okrug and the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in northwest Russia. A small percentage of the Komi peoples can also be found in this region.

[2] EU's 7th Environment Action Programme to 2020, Living well, within the limits of our planet, Paragraph 98.

[3] The EEA also has cooperation agreements with the Government of Greenland (the first signed on 25 November 2010).

[4] The Economy of the North (ECONOR) seen in a global perspective has been assessed twice. A third study is being completed under the auspices of the Arctic Council working group on sustainable development.

[5] Some economic developments can interfere with traditional ways of life and can lower local living conditions and negatively affect the local job market. 

[6] Work on understanding Arctic Resilience has started under the auspices of the Arctic Council through the production of an Arctic Resilience Report to be completed in 2015. The programme for the US chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015–2017 has identified Arctic resilience as a topic to be further developed.

[7] Rovaniemi, 1991, Environmental Protection Strategy for the Arctic.

[8] France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom are observers to the Arctic Council. In 2015 also Greece, Switzerland and Turkey applied to become observers in the Arctic Council. 

[9] At the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Kiruna on 15 May 2013 it was decided to affirmatively receive the EU observer application but to deter a final decision until consensus was achieved. In September 2014 Canada lifted its objection to the EU's application for accredited observer status in the Arctic Council. At the time of writing, an official announcement of the EU observer role had yet to be published by the Council but a decision is expected at the next Ministerial meeting in April 2015. 

[10] 2014, Strategic Assessment of Development of the Arctic, an Assessment conducted for the European Union (including a Compendium of European Arctic Initiatives).

[11] AMAP, 2007, Arctic Oil & Gas.

[12] Statistics Norway, 2011.

[13] Eurostat, 2014.

[14] Northern Sea Route Information Office, 2013.

[15] The figures for the Northeast Passage covers only freight carriers. See Table 4.1. in the Strategic Assessment of the Development of the Arctic. 

[16] Black carbon primarily comes from the burning of fossil fuels and forest fires outside the Arctic, but also to a lesser extent from shipping within the Arctic, especially from ships using heavy fuel oil (a fuel already banned in the Antarctic).

[17] AMAP, 2011, Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA): Climate Change and the Cryosphere.

[18] It is estimated that up to 75% of the ice volume has been lost since the 1980s. The record low sea ice extent was observed in 2012 since satellite observations began in 1979. The 10 lowest Arctic sea ice extents over the satellite record have all occurred in the last ten years. 2014 was the 6th lowest in the satellite record. See EEA indicator: Arctic and Baltic Sea ice.

[19] Ice-dependent species include polar bears, seals and walrus. The production and species composition of plankton and ice-algae are also affected due to increased light conditions. See: CAFF, 2013, Arctic Biodiversity Assessment.

[20] Ocean acidification in the Arctic is widespread and changing rapidly which affects marine organisms' ability to create calcium carbonate shells. AMAP, 2013, Arctic Ocean Acidification.

[21]  AMAP, 2011, Arctic Climate Issues 2011: Changes in Arctic Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost.

[22] Arctic snow cover has been declining up to 53% in summer, with most of the reductions occurring since 1980. See also EEA Indicator on Snow Cover.

[23] The average ice loss increased from 34 billion tonnes per year (Gt/year) over the period 1992–2001 to 215 Gt/year over the period 2002–2011; and to 375 Gt/year over the period 2011–2013.

[24] Ice2sea, EU FP7 funded project looking into sea level rise from Polar Regions and mountains.

[25] Europe has estimated economic assets of EUR 500–1 000 billion and some 47 500 km2 of sites with high ecological value within 500 meters of the coastline.

[26] UNFCCC, COP16, Cancun, 2010.

[27] CAFF, 2013, Arctic Biodiversity Assessment.

[28] Furthermore, Arctic plants are expected to lose up to 43% of their current distribution under moderate climate change scenarios (IPCC, 2000, A2 and B2 emission scenarios) which occurs in addition to overharvesting and destruction of habitats.

[29] Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, Status and trends in Arctic biodiversity: Synthesis, 2013.

[30] AMAP, 2010, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in the Arctic.

[31] AMAP, 2011, Mercury in the Arctic.

[32] Although the Arctic is generally seen as a pristine environment, mercury levels are now at levels where dietary advice and warnings are given to breastfeeding mothers in communities with a diet primarily derived from local marine food items.

[33] Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Programme

[34] The AMAP Trends and Effects Monitoring Programme (ATEMP) is a harmonized programme for monitoring the trends and effects of contaminants and climate change across the circumpolar Arctic region.

[35] The International Polar Year lasted from March 2007 to March 2009.

[36] Arctic Council, 2011, Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic.

[37] Arctic Council, 2013, Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic.

[38] Examples: The Stockholm Convention, The Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP), The Minamata Convention on mercury, The UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.  

[39] For example the mandatory 'Polar code' for ships operating in ice-covered waters which is expected to enter into force on 1 January 2017 after the adoption in November 2014 by the International Maritime Organisation on the safety part (the pollution prevention part is expected to be adopted in April 2015). Another example is the agreement from the Arctic Council on Arctic 'Oil spill response'.

[40] Arctic Council, 2014, Arctic Offshore Oil and Gas Guidelines: Systems Safety Management and Safety Culture.

[41] Council Conclusions on developing a European Union Policy towards the Arctic Region, 2014.

[42] Through programmes such as Copernicus, Galileo, CryoSat and the MyOcean project. See: Joint Staff Working Document on Space and the Arctic, 2012.

[43] The EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020, also joined by Norway and Iceland.

[44]  The SAON initiative formally adopted in 2011 is co-led by the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC).

[45] An EU Arctic policy was first suggested in 2008 and the recent joint Communication of the Commission and the European External Action Service from 2012 has been met positively by both the European Parliament and the Council in 2014. Commission Communication on the EU and the Arctic region, 2008. Joint Commission and EEAS communication on developing an EU Policy towards the Arctic Region: progress since 2008 and next steps, 2012. European Parliament Resolution on the EU strategy for the Arctic, 2014. Council Conclusions on developing a European Union Policy towards the Arctic Region, 2014.

[46] IPCC, 2014, 5th Assessment Report, Synthesis report.

[47] In 1997, EEA in collaboration with the Norwegian Polar Institute issued a report on The State of the European Arctic Environment. In 2004 the EEA, in collaboration with UNEP and the Arctic Council, produced a report on the Arctic, addressing the question of: Why should Europe care?

[48] EU Arctic Footprint and Policy Assessment, 2010.

[49] Strategic Assessment of Development of the Arctic, an Assessment conducted for the European Union, including a Compendium of European Arctic Initiatives, September 2014.

[50] IPCC, 2014, 5th Assessment Report, Chapter 28 Polar regions.

[51] The EEA has identified a number of Arctic indicators in order to track changes in the region, including; i) Snow Cover, ii) Greenland ice sheet, iii) Arctic and Baltic sea ice, iv) Permafrost, v) Sea level rise, and vi) Lake and river ice cover. See the thematic assessments for more information: impacts, vulnerability and adaptation.

[52] US Geological Survey, 2008. The figures are based on statistical probabilities and not proven available physical resources nor do the estimates relate to the economic viability for the extraction of the estimated resources.

[53]  International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Outlook 2012.

[54] Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC).

[55] IMO Ballast Water Management Convention.

[56] Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic (AACA). The project is expected to be completed in 2017.

[57] The European Commission adopted in 2013 an EU strategy on climate change adaptation. The strategy encourages EU member states to adopt national adaptation strategies; it promotes further research and better sharing of knowledge and it includes mainstreaming and funding for actions in key vulnerable sectors. The European Climate Adaptation Platform shares information on adaptation in EEA member countries.


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