New ‘Arctic paradox’ emerges, as economy and ecology seek balance

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As the world pushes for stronger climate measures to stop the destruction of the Arctic, many countries are also keen to take advantage of the region’s new opportunities in shipping, mining, drilling and security.

Meanwhile, the Arctic’s own inhabitants want to have a bigger say in the region’s development, aware that outsiders might be less eager or able to strike a balance between economic exploitation and environmental protection.

‘No-mans land’?

A few months ago, the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs was left baffled by rather remarkable statements from the French Defence Minister Florence Parly, who presented the brand new French defence strategy for the Arctic.

In its preamble, the new strategy document states, “the Arctic belongs to no-one” and “only cooperation between states will lead to meaningful results”, and went on to quote former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard comparing the Arctic to a lawless Middle East.

In the emerging debate, Arctic is often portrayed as a remote, pristine, exotic region which “has to be saved” by external commitment. Meanwhile, regional stakeholders emphasise that exactly the opposite is the truth – the Arctic is populated, regulated, and not far.

“Those claims are completely false. To Norway, the Arctic is not remote. There is no legal vacuum in the Arctic, national and international legal mechanisms are already in place and apply,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eiriksen Søreide told a panel at Arctic Frontiers, Norway’s largest gathering on Arctic affairs, in response to the French comments.

She pointed towards the eight independent states being engaged in a series of international cooperation constellations, such as the Arctic Council, the Barents Cooperation and the Law of the Seas, which contribute to the negotiation process on agreements between all Arctic states.

In recent years, Nordic countries have been increasingly pressured to manoeuvre against the recent trend of exiting international agreements, set by Washington, with other world powers like China and Russia also tempted to take a ‘light approach’ to international law.

Finland, Denmark and Norway are currently updating their national Arctic strategies, and so is the European Union, which is working on a new Arctic strategy document, only three years after it adopted its Arctic policy.

The EU’s Arctic Ambassador, Marie-Anne Coninsx, has repeatedly stressed the need for new international structures for regional governance.

However, changing or renegotiating existing agreements is far from many Arctic stakeholders’ minds, Søreide told the audience, marked by a strong presence of US and Russian representatives and few European policymakers.

A recurring theme in any Arctic debate is the lack of knowledge about the region by some of the actors involved.

“When you look back, at least some of the discussions on the Arctic outside the region have been, in some sense, built on myths and a lack of sufficient knowledge,” Audun Halvorsen, state secretary of the Norwegian foreign ministry, told EURACTIV.

The fact that the region is on the radar of many countries, which are developing their national Arctic policies, is all the more reason “why it is so important to have full knowledge and in-depth analysis of the regional situation, including the legal framework and the governance structures that are already in place,” Halvorsen said.

“One key issue is climate change, where we see a negative dynamic between global developments and developments in the Arctic: temperatures are rising at a faster pace in the Arctic, which in turn may have global consequences,” he added.

A decisive question for the region is how to resolve the ‘Arctic Paradox’ – the trade-off between pursuing economic opportunities and preventing environmental degradation through increasing commercialisation of the fragile region.

Norway has recently set itself the task of reducing the emission of harmful substances to the atmosphere by 40% by 2030 compared to 1990 indicators. But although the Arctic state has comparatively low levels of CO2 emissions, it exports a lot of them as one of the main oil and gas producers.

“We will find a balance between [environmental] protection and productivity,” Norway’s Foreign Minister Søreide announced.

But global interest in the economic potential of the Arctic is on the rise. Valuable minerals and around a quarter of the world’s still undiscovered reserves of oil and gas are thought to lie in the Arctic.

New northern shipping routes becoming navigable in summer could drastically reduce transport time and CO2 emissions between the world’s commercial hubs.

However, business opportunities in recent years have increasingly clashed with indigenous people’s rights, who demand better involvement in decision-making processes.

“It is important to recognise that the Arctic is home to up to six million people, whose economies could be improved with development,” Ole Øvretveit, director of Arctic Frontiers, told EURACTIV.

He said many people think of the Arctic in terms of “polar bears and icebergs, the big vast ocean and the melting ice cap, and this strong, powerful image could put a stop to developing the Arctic”.

The real image is much harder to convey, Øvretveit said, as there is a “lack basic knowledge of how the Arctic is managed, how the people who live here have been managing this part of the world and doing commercial activities here for centuries and millennia.”

To him, the question is more how to include local communities and indigenous people in these processes to get the most relevant knowledge about Arctic issues.

“The Arctic will do fine if we develop in consideration of environmental concerns,” Øvretveit said, pointing to how technological solutions and new innovations – a focus at this year’s event – could be key to achieving this.

According to him, it needs increased cooperation between national and international research institutions to increase knowledge about those who live in the region to as many stakeholders.

“All of these things – global leaders like Trump bluntly lying about climate change, fake news, alternative facts, Twittocracy – they’re not good for the world, but they are definitely not good for the Arctic,” he said, adding that “it affects the scientific community, deteriorates the trust in science and leads to bad decisions being made in a region that is fragile enough.”

Avoid politicising Arctic issues, expert warns

The Arctic has so far been largely conflict-free. If this ever changes, it will probably be the result of a spillover from other parts of the world, Arctic expert Svein Rottem told EURACTIV.com in an interview, in which he spoke about Arctic governance and the EU’s role in the region.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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