EU move on Arctic protection gets mixed reception

Posted: 25 November 2008

The recent statement [November 20, 2008] by the European Commission on the need to protect the rapidly melting Arctic from a rush to exploit its natural resources has had a mixed reception. Environmental groups have welcomed its call for a multinational approach to protecting this fragile region, while countries, such as Canada, with an Arctic coastline have been less impressed by Europe's interest in the matter.

Arctic ice loss
Arctic ice loss
Arctic sea ice extent in September has declined by 8.9% per decade over the last 30 years. This decline is already affecting polar bears. Photo © John Aars, Norwegian Polar Institute
Randy Boswell, writing in the Edmonton Journal said the EU's move was "likely to prompt a cold stare from Canada and some other polar nations" and recalled that Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper had recently vowed to expand Canada's jurisdiction over Arctic waters and trumpeted Canada's northern reaches as a resource boon.

Boswell pointed out that while acknowledging that the European Union has "no direct coastline on the Arctic Ocean," the statement released in Brussels describes the polar region as part of Europe's "immediate vicinity" and proposes "binding international standards" to govern offshore oil extraction.

"That position", he said "was one that could conflict with non-EU polar states - Canada, the US, Norway and Russia - as they move to exploit the region's rich petroleum resources."

Greenland summit

EU members Finland and Sweden, as well as the EU-associated "economic partner" Iceland, are considered polar countries but do not have Arctic Ocean coastlines. Those three nations were not invited to attend a Greenland summit in May that resulted in the five-nation Ilulissat Declaration - an explicit rejection of any new multilateral frameworks for governing future economic activity in the Arctic.

While noting that Canada and the four other signatories to the Ilulissat Declaration have committed to the "orderly settlement of any overlapping claims" in the Arctic, the commission's report pointedly states that "since then, several of them have announced steps extending or affirming their national jurisdiction and strengthening their Arctic presence."

The EU statement also follows unresolved disagreements between Canada and other nations regarding jurisdiction over the Northwest Passage sea route. The EU Commission says that European "member states and the community should defend the principle of freedom of navigation."

Arctic species Welcoming the statement, WWF said it was "an important contribution to the goal of ensuring that the Arctic is not destroyed by a new natural resources rush."

"It echoes WWF’s position that the Arctic environment requires preservation, that any use of its resources should be sustainable, and that a shared and strengthened approach to arctic governance is required besides the basic principles provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."

Neil Hamilton, Director of WWF International’s Arctic Programme, added: “Many arctic species are already under stress from human activities and climate change. There is a strong need for avoiding additional pressures on the environment caused by unsustainable exploitative activities.

"The Arctic requires a shared approach to governance with ecosystems conservation as a core value to the benefit of future generations." He says the Arctic is on the threshold of historically unprecedented, potentially dangerous ecological changes which will have global repercussions. The most prominent of these is the severely accelerated melting of the arctic sea ice, which opens new opportunities for the exploitation of arctic resources such as expanded oil and gas development, new commercial fishing and increased shipping.

Indigenous peoples

Indigenous populations in the Arctic. Photo: Environmental Health Perspectives
Indigenous populations in the Arctic. Photo: Environmental Health Perspectives
Indigenous populations in the Arctic are the most affected by contamination of their traditional food sources such as caribou, seal, and fish.© Environmental Health Perspectives
“We are concerned that the present set of rules for the Arctic are not strong enough or broad enough to ensure environmental protection and sustainability for the region,” Hamilton continued. “We have seen the damage caused by historical resource rushes in this region, and we are concerned that with the impacts of climate change already being felt, any new development in the Arctic must be carefully managed. This means a comprehensive seamless approach to arctic governance rather than the current patchwork of treaties and agreement.”

The EU statement comes at a time when the arctic States and the six international arctic indigenous peoples’ organisations are attending a meeting of the Arctic Council. “We hope the Council pays attention to the voices coming from inside and outside the Arctic calling for improved governance,” adds Hamilton. “The members have not only a responsibility to their own people, but also to the rest of the world to ensure the region’s continued sustainability.”

The Commission communication follows a resolution passed recently by the European Parliament that also calls for improvements to arctic governance and is the basis for the development of an EU Arctic policy.

Note: The Arctic is an enormous area, sprawling over one sixth of the earths' landmass; more than 30 million km2 and 24 time zones. It has a population of about four million, including over thirty different indigenous peoples and dozens of languages. The Arctic is a region of vast natural resources and - as yet - a relatively clean environment.

The Ottawa Declaration of 1996 formally established the Arctic Council as a high level intergovernmental forum to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection. Member States are Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States. In addition, Permanent Participants include Arctic organisations of Indigenous peoples.

Related links:

Arctic sea routes opening up with climate change

Climate change hitting arctic harder, faster

illegal fishing is plunder Arctic

Poising the purity of the Arctic