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26th Feb 2024

Clinton: Arctic Council enters new era

  • Ahren: 'There is no way we can stop increased shipping and the extraction of mineral resources' (Photo: Gus MacLeod)

The Arctic Council - a forum of eight countries with territory in the polar region - has agreed its first legally-binding agreement, marking it out as a burgeoning decision-making arena at a time when global interest in the region is spiraling.

Climate change, melting icecaps, offshore oil and new shipping routes are among the issues attracting an increasingly heavy-weight crowd, evidenced at a ministerial meeting in Nuuk, Greenland, on Thursday (12 May) by the attendance of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.

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"In addition to the individual nations which have a sovereign position ... the Arctic Council is becoming a key decision-making forum," Clinton told EUobserver in the margins of the event. Her presence marks the first time the US has sent a minister to the council in its 15-year existence.

Sweden took over the two-year chairmanship from Denmark at the meeting. "In the past this was an area of political conflict, now it's becoming an area of increasing cooperation," Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said.

When the Kremlin famously dispatched a submarine in 2007 to plant a rust-proof titanium Russian flag on the Arctic seabed, it did indeed appear that the escalating 'race for the Arctic' would inevitably cause growing tensions in the region.

But on Thursday, after a morning's boat trip taking in Greenland's spectacular scenery together, the ministers signed up to a legally-binding agreement on aeronautical and maritime search and rescue.

Danish foreign minister and outgoing Arctic Council chair Lene Espersen described the deal as "ground-breaking".

"We might have ships, including cruise ships with many passengers, going further and further north into the Arctic with the increased risk that accidents may happen. This is an imminent threat, and one that we have prepared for," she told conference delegates.

More legally-binding deals look set to follow, with Bildt indicating that Sweden would use its two years at the helm to push for an agreement on the prevention and coordinated response to future oil spills in the region.

The Arctic for humans?

The Arctic covers more than one sixth of the earth's landmass, and is home to a modest four million people including 30 different indigenous groups.

Established in 1996 in Ottawa, Canada, as a forum to discuss some of the key issues facing the region, the Arctic Council is made up of: Canada, Denmark [including the Faroe Islands and Greenland], Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US. In addition, six organisations representing Arctic indigenous peoples have status as 'permanent participants'.

The council is backed up by a number of working groups, where the bulk of the work is carried out, tackling issues such as climate change, pollution monitoring and prevention, biodiversity conservation and the sustainable use of resources. As a sign of its growing stature, on Thursday the decision was also taken to establish a permanent secretariat for the council, based in Norway.

A new report published this month entitled 'Megatrends' outlines nine driving factors which are likely to "transform society" in the region in the years to come, with "continued pollution and ongoing climate change" among the most important.

Evidence of this can be seen in Arctic temperatures. Despite this year's unusually cold May, say Greenlanders, scientists estimate that Arctic temperatures are rising at twice the speed of the rest of the Earth.

Soot, also known as black carbon, ground level ozone and methane have been identified as key drivers behind this, with large amounts of trapped methane released when Arctic ice melts.

The knock-on effects are already proving to be devastating for Arctic species such as the polar bear, an animal which is highly adapted to hunting on sheet-ice and now finds it increasingly difficult to find food. Melting ice is also forecast to change ocean currents, with implications for marine ecosystems and fish migratory paths.

Despite this, the message from Thursday's conference was that human's come first. "Let me stress for a moment that we claim the right to development," Greenland's premier Kuupik Kleist said.

"All the ministers who spoke today put the Arctic people first. They have been criticised for putting other issues - like the environment - first in the past."

For the most part, indigenous groups tend to agree. "There is no way we can stop increased shipping and the extraction of mineral resources," Mattias Ahren of the SAMMI Council, an NGO which represents Saami member organisations in Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden, told this website.

"We need to be involved in the decision making so that it benefits indigenous peoples, so that there is benefit sharing."

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