Challenges and opportunities posed by global warming in the Arctic

by Patrick Truffer (originally published in German). He has been working in the Swiss Armed Forces for more than 15 years, holds a bachelor’s degree in public affairs from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zurich), and a master’s degree in international relations from the Free University of Berlin.

Wrongly, there is little talk in Western and Central European countries of the changes in the Arctic. The term “Global Arctic”, introduced at the Arctic Circle meeting in 2014, underlines the magnitude of the changes in the Arctic. According to Konrad Steffen, Director of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, the melting ice sheet in Greenland has caused sea levels to rise by an average of 1 mm per year over the last 40 years; by 2100 they are expected to rise by another 1 m in total. This will lead to long-term changes to coastal regions around the world.

The changes in the Arctic do not only have a global impact: distant events, such as increasing carbon dioxide emissions, are also causing far-reaching changes in the Arctic. This interplay can be seen not only in the ecological sphere, but also in the economic, geopolitical, social and cultural realms. This makes supra-regional and interdisciplinary cooperation all the more important in order to meet the current and future challenges linked to the Arctic region. (Lassi Heininen und Matthias Finger, “The ‘Global Arctic’ as a New Geopolitical Context and Method“, Journal of Borderlands Studies, 04.12.2017).

This role falls to the Arctic Council, which is an intergovernmental forum with a strong scientific focus. The objectives of the Arctic Council are to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction between Arctic states relating to typical Arctic issues, while keeping indigenous communities involved. The Arctic states listed in the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, which form the core of the Arctic Council, are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the USA. In addition, 13 states, 13 international organisations and 13 non-governmental organisations currently have observer status.

Not only did Finland take up the presidency at the 10th meeting of the Arctic Council in May 2017: Switzerland was also officially admitted to the circle of states with observer status. The Arctic strategy of the three Nordic countries was considered in the context of “The Arctic – closer than you think” organised by “foraus – Forum Foreign Policy” in cooperation with the Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian embassies and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Finally, the question remained as to how Switzerland could contribute as profitably as possible, as an observer in the Arctic Council.

"The Arctic – closer than you think" -- From left to right: Host Markus Mugglin, the Swedish Ambassador Björn Lyrvall, the Norwegian Ambassador Anniken Krutnes, the Finnish Ambassador Aleksi Härkönen and the Swiss Ambassador Stefan Flückiger.

“The Arctic – closer than you think” — From left to right: Host Markus Mugglin, the Swedish Ambassador Björn Lyrvall, the Norwegian Ambassador Anniken Krutnes, the Finnish Ambassador Aleksi Härkönen and the Swiss Ambassador Stefan Flückiger.

Finland’s strategy for the Arctic region was last adopted in October 2012 and slightly updated in 2016 for its Arctic Council presidency. It is based on four pillars:

  • Finland is an Arctic state. A quarter of Finland’s territory lies north of the Arctic Circle. A third of the population who live north of the 60th degree of latitude have Finnish citizenship – including some of the Samis, the only indigenous ethnic group within the EU. It is therefore important for Finland that the Arctic remains a stable and safe area.
  • Finland has a great deal of expertise on Arctic matters. The Finnish government’s aim is to understand the changes in the Arctic, to adapt to them or even to take advantage of them. However, Finland does not only want to take a leading position in Arctic research: it also wants to use Arctic expertise for economic purposes, in a responsible manner.
  • Finland is committed to sustainable development and the sustainable use of natural resources in the Arctic region.
  • Finland encourages international cooperation in the Arctic region.

The Finnish Ambassador and Chairman of the Arctic Council, Aleksi Härkönen, emphasised good cooperation in the Arctic Council, although he is concerned about further long-term cooperation due to the negative trend in international relations. International relations are particularly burdened by global changes in power politics and geopolitical competition between the major powers. It therefore seems to be to the Arctic Council’s advantage that it does not deal with security policy issues (cf. Christoph Humrich, “Sicherheitspolitik im Arktischen Rat? Lieber Nicht!“, Sicherheit & Frieden 33, Nr. 3 (2015): 23–29).

Good cooperation in the Arctic Council is in everyone’s interest, because climate change will lead to fundamental changes in the Arctic region, which will affect all the Arctic states. New sea routes and newly available resources are to be used in a responsible manner. The aim is to develop the region economically while at the same time protecting the environment and the habitat of the indigenous population. This is why Finland intends to focus on mitigating the consequences of climate change and adapting to them, as well as using the Arctic region sustainably during its presidency, which runs until 2019.

With regard to the use of new sea routes, in February the Arctic Council organised an international conference on the harmonised implementation of the “Polar Code“, which the International Maritime Organisation brought into force in early 2017 for ships navigating the two polar regions. Among other things, the Arctic Council runs a forum for the exemplary conduct of Arctic shipping, ran a staff exercise in Finland in March on combating an oil disaster in the Arctic Sea, organises a congress on Arctic biodiversity in October of this year and arranges a meeting of the environment ministers of all Arctic states (Aleksi Härkönen, “A Look Ahead: The Arctic Council in 2018“, Arctic Council, 09.02.2018).

Finland is not alone in its strategy for the Arctic region. Norway and Sweden have defined very similar strategies. The Norwegian Ambassador for Arctic and Antarctic Affairs, Anniken Krutnes, recalled that the Arctic is a prosperous, stable and peaceful region. The Arctic is not just plains of ice and snow. Different regions can take on different shapes, and can be clothed in green during the summer. However, climate change will affect all these different regions. The Arctic Council is an important institution for ensuring prosperity, stability, peace and sustainable economic usage in the region. Simpler access to natural resources should not be allowed to lead to a mining contest. In fishing, care is already being taken that fish stocks in the Arctic region are only used to the extent that they can regenerate, on the basis of scientific data. Norway has a strong interest in the economic development of the region, as half of its land mass and around 10% of Norway’s population is located in the Arctic region.

The Swedish Ambassador for Arctic Affairs, Björn Lyrvall, also emphasised the importance of the Arctic Council. Regardless of intergovernmental relations in other policy areas, there would be consensus in the Arctic Council on the main points and priorities, he said. Accordingly he also highlighted the opportunities associated with global warming: access to resources and the Northeast Passage offering a shorter, more economical and safer link to East Asia than the standard route through the Suez Canal today.

Summer in East Greenland (Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak / flickr).

Summer in East Greenland (Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak / flickr).

As a result, the points and strategies of the three Nordic ambassadors coincide. Of course, global warming is a challenge, but the opportunities that result from it must be seized, they say. This view seems to be a little too rosy: the ambassadors did not address in detail the challenges for coastal regions triggered by rising sea levels and the challenges for the indigenous population due to the change in lifestyle caused by global warming. In particular, the extraction of mineral resources could have a negative impact on the region’s environment and population. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 13% of untapped oil resources and 30% of untapped natural gas resources are to be found in the Arctic region. The sustainable, environmentally friendly extraction of these resources borders on wishful thinking. This is why Anna Stünzi, co-director of the Environment, Energy & Transport Programme at “foraus – Forum Foreign Policy”, considered in the discussion that it would be better for the sustainable, environmentally friendly development of the Arctic region if these mineral resources were not mined. However, the Norwegian ambassador’s reaction clearly showed that Norway does not want to do without such an economic opportunity, if only to offer the Norwegian population in this region the best possible positive economic prospects for the future. On the contrary, Norway’s Statoil, 67% of the shares in which are owned by the state, is already mining natural gas in the Arctic region and operates Europe’s largest liquefied natural gas processing plant in Hammerfest. In addition, the Norwegian Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani has a small-scale coal mining operation in Spitsbergen. The Finnish strategy also clearly shows that Finland wants to make economic use of resources in the Arctic.

Natural gas processing plant on the island of Melkøya near Hammerfest.

Natural gas processing plant on the island of Melkøya near Hammerfest.

As an observer in the Arctic Council, Switzerland could play a role in protecting the environment and the way of life of the indigenous population. Switzerland’s Arctic strategy does not seem to have been formulated yet – this was the impression given by Swiss Ambassador Stefan Flückiger, Head of Bilateral Economic Relations at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research. He merely underlined the importance of observer status with regard to joint research efforts. The Swiss Alps have much in common with the Arctic, he said. During the four-year campaign to obtain observer status in the Arctic Council, Switzerland was praised as a “vertical Arctic nation”. Switzerland has been active in the Arctic for over 100 years and is up there with the best in terms of research (Tina Herren, “Beobachter im Arktischen Rat – ‘Wir haben ähnliche Probleme wie die Arktis’“, Interview with Stefan Flückiger, Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (SRF), 12.05.2017). The Swiss Polar Institute was founded in 2016 to further promote research in this area. For its part, the Arctic Council supports 10 research projects in the Arctic each year. In terms of research, Switzerland can therefore not only benefit a lot from its observer status – it can also offer a lot in return. Nevertheless, it would be a wasted opportunity if Switzerland, as an observer in the Arctic Council, were to confine itself exclusively to research topics.

This entry was posted in English, General Knowledge, Patrick Truffer, Politics in General.

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