15th Jun 2021

Commission green-lights industrialisation of Arctic

  • The retreating ice opens new fishing grounds (Photo: David Lundy)

The rapidly melting Arctic is a bonanza of oil, gas, fish and mineral wealth waiting to be exploited - so long as it is done in a sustainable manner, the European Commission believes.

Faster transit routes, including the fabled Northwest Passage sought by explorers for centuries, and expanded possibilities for polar tourism also provide exciting opportunities for businesses, according to the EU executive, which on Thursday (20 November) adopted a communication outlining Europe's first ever policy towards the Land of the Midnight Sun.

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"We cannot remain impassive in the face of the alarming developments affecting the Arctic climate and, in consequence, the rest of our planet," said fisheries commissioner Joe Borg, while speaking to reporters after the publication of the policy document.

"The Arctic is an essential and vulnerable component of the Earth's ecosystem," echoed his colleague, external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Walder. "The effects of climate change are more advanced and more evident in the Arctic than in any other area of the world."

But this is no reason not to exploit the region, they both argued.

"On the other hand, the combination of the climatic changes and the recent technological developments opens up new opportunities interlaced with challenges," said Mr Borg.

"There are significant mineral resources, in particular hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic located under the sovereign territories or inside the exclusive economic zones of the Arctic states," said Ms Ferrero-Waldner.

She added that there is already exploration for fossil fuels going on and so there was no point in trying to put a halt to such activity.

"Exploitation is already going ahead in some places and could be profitable. But it must be sustainable and comply with strict environmental standards."

The document has three main thrusts - the protection of the Arctic environment and its people, the sustainable exploitation of resources, and the improvement of multi-lateral governance of the region.

Ms Ferrero-Walder described these elements as the three pillars of EU Arctic policy.

The fisheries commissioner also noted that the retreating ice opens new fishing grounds, but warned that considerable parts of the Arctic ocean are not covered by regional fisheries management organisations.

"The boundaries of these pristine waters need to be regulated to avoid overfishing," he said. The commission believes the best authority to oversee such a process is the Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Council and will take initiatives to widen the scope of this body.

The commission is to apply for observer status with the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that brings together the Arctic nations: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US.

Additionally, in order to improve maritime surveillance, the commission is working with the European Space Agency to explore the development of a polar orbiting satellite system. This would permit better knowledge of shipping traffic and co-ordinate faster reactions during emergencies.

Law of the Sea

The commission strongly backs developing the governance of the region, which has until now has been very weak as a result of the inhospitable environment that left few humans interested in the Arctic.

In May this year, the five Arctic Ocean coastal states - Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark - adopted a declaration supporting the maintenance of the existing legal framework that covers the region: the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

However, in October, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted in favour of the negotiation of an international Arctic treaty to protect the high north.

Although the parliament's resolution also supports the sustainable development of the Arctic, including for fossil fuel extraction, some environmental groups would like to see an Arctic treaty that mirrors the Antarctic Treaty, which set aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, banned territorial claims and prohibited military activities.

The commission however rejects the parliament's perspective.

"I back the views of the Arctic states that an Arctic Charter is not the way forward," said Mr Borg. "The bedrock for action in the Arctic Ocean remains the Law of the Sea.

He encouraged those countries present in the Arctic that are not signatories to the convention to sign on "as soon as possible." The United States is not a party to the Law of the Sea.

The Liberal grouping in the European Parliament largely welcomed the communication but criticised the failure to support the euro-deputies' position on a new treaty.

"If there is one disappointment with the communication, it is that the commission has not taken up the parliament's call to open international negotiations designed to lead to the adoption of an international treaty for the protection of the Arctic," said UK MEP Diana Wallis.

Potential for catastrophe

Environmental groups are horrified at the commission's support for the industrialisation of the Arctic, and are extremely sceptical that many proposed activities can be done in a sustainable fashion at all, particularly fossil fuel development, shipping goods across the Arctic Ocean and expanded fisheries.

"Increasing human activities could significantly accelerate the threats facing the Arctic, which would have cascading effects all over the world," warned Oceana, an oceans campaign group.

"Irresponsible development in the Arctic ecosystem holds the potential for catastrophe", said Xavier Pastor, the director of the group's European division.

Oceana says that there must be a comprehensive scientific assessment before any development can take place, followed by principles of precautionary management.

The commission says it does indeed support the precautionary principle for the Arctic and plans to open a dialogue with environmental groups about the Arctic.

The fisheries commissioner said he indeed supports such thinking.

"I think the prudent way forward is the precautionary approach," Mr Borg said. "If it turns out that the environmental damage caused by certain activities is too high, then we will take the necessary action."

Oceana is doubtful.

"Yes, they say they're going to take a precautionary approach, but they also say that about fisheries, so that doesn't bode well," said Julie Cator, the group's policy director.

"If the environment is so important in their thinking, why wasn't the environment commissioner there [to present the communication] as well?"

The environment directorate-general was not involved in the drafting of the communication.

The commission said that environment commissioner was unable to attend as he was in Strasbourg.

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