What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Undated handout photo of a polar bear in the Arctic Barents Sea region issued by the University of St Andrews, which carried out what is thought to be the largest ever survey of Arctic polar bears. [EPA/UNIVERSITY OF ST ANDREWS/HANDOUT]

The Arctic is once again at the centre of geopolitical and strategic discussions, mainly for one reason – climate change – and it is imperative to act now, write Virginijus Sinkevičius and Boris Herrmann.

Virginijus Sinkevičius is the European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. Boris Herrmann is a German yachtsman and sea explorer.

We are facing an unprecedented phenomenon that has accelerated tremendously in recent years. It is imperative to act now and act together because what happens in the Arctic, doesn’t stay in the Arctic.

It concerns us all. That is why we are addressing the public from two completely different angles: as the European Commissioner of Environment, Oceans and Fisheries from the Commission’s headquarters in Brussels; and as a professional ocean sailor and ocean activist just returning from the Vendée Globe race, a single-hand regatta around the planet in just 80 days.

Virginijus Sinkevičius: The sign of alarm

The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. We are probably only a few decades away from the definitive disappearance of the Arctic summer ice cap.

In Siberia, permafrost is now thawing at a dramatic pace, releasing methane – a greenhouse gas far more powerful than CO2. Greenland is losing trillions of tons of ice. The negative feedback of the melting polar ice cap may become the first irreversible (and accelerating) tipping point in the earth system, bringing us closer onto a slide towards a hothouse Earth.

The impacts of climate change are felt around the world: rising sea level, changes in climate and precipitation patterns, increasing severe weather events, an alarming increase in forest fires across the planet, and loss of biodiversity.

And in some regions of the planet, it already causes social and economic disruption such as climate migration or decreasing agricultural yields.

Protecting and safeguarding the Arctic requires keeping global warming below 1.5°C. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations. The must finally admit that The foundation of our civilisation is a stable climate and rich biodiversity.

The European Union is currently revisiting its Arctic policy and has invited all those concerned to join the conversation.

Most stakeholders that contributed to our public consultation consider that the current priorities of the EU’s Arctic Policy, namely tackling climate change, protecting the environment, fostering sustainable development and reinforcing international cooperation remain critical.

At the same time, many voices encourage stepping up action and deliver a more effective and efficient response.

The Arctic Sea borders three continents. Regional and international coordination are therefore indispensable to protecting the Arctic marine environment. The EU already contributes significantly to the activities of the Arctic Council, such as its Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter, and will continue to do so.

It is only by pooling resources that we can achieve results. The EU is therefore promoting international cooperation at all levels.

To give you an example, the EU was one of the first signatories to ratify the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean and is now playing a leading role in establishing science cooperation under the future Joint Program of Scientific Research and Monitoring. The EU also co-organised the Second Arctic Science Ministerial.

Likewise, through the EU-PolarNet, we are bringing together Arctic research expertise and infrastructure from across the globe in the biggest research network focussed on the Arctic.

EU services like Galileo – for satellite navigation – and Copernicus – for earth observation – are providing international researchers with essential information on climate change and its impacts in the region.

We must also look to the future. With our forthcoming strategy, we intend to provide an outlook for the years ahead and outline common solutions to make our Arctic policy fit for the future. These solutions will be innovative and environmentally sound, through the prism of the European Green Deal.

Yet global changes always have millions of personal human-based stories. Thus, our policies must bring benefits to those who live there, including indigenous peoples, whose livelihoods depend on a balanced interaction with nature. It is a matter to us all.

Because what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Especially those who put the ocean at the centre of their lives. Like Boris Herrmann to whom I pass the word.

Boris Herrmann: Every second breath you take comes from the Oceans.

As a professional offshore sailor, I have known the world’s oceans for over 20 years. I have already raced around the globe on a yacht four times. About 150 days of each year I spend on the high sea.

I just finished the around the world alone and non-stop Vendée Globe Race which took me through the Southern Ocean. In these remote locations, I experienced the impacts of climate change on our Oceans first-hand.

The sea is my office, my home and my playground. And my friend. But even if you are not connected as literally to the sea as I am, you are more intrinsically connected than you think. Every second breath you take comes from the Oceans.

Protecting them is paramount to our survival on earth and the Arctic region plays a vital role in maintaining balance within the Oceans.

I initially experienced the Arctic region in 2015, when I became the fastest sailor on the planet to sail with only wind power through the North-East Passage in the Arctic region. Ironically this was only possible due to record low ice levels, and we used this trip to raise awareness for the severe reduction in ice levels in the Arctic.

We have already lost 50% of the Arctic ice. To stop this from happening there should be the strictest highest standards in place to protect these regions and indigenous people from exploration, climate change and exploitation.

Our partners in logistics have all signed the Arctic Pledge stating that they will not use this shorter Arctic route which will soon be commercially viable due to climate change, instead, they would rather work to reduce the speed of climate change. As a team, we fully support this notion and urge big companies to do the same.

In July last year, I sailed single-handed in a race from France to the edge of the Arctic Circle and back. I was ready to experience the plummeting temperatures, but the journey was not as cold as I had anticipated. Like many of us are noticing each day, we are living in a time when soaring temperatures in summer and winter are becoming the norm, but they shouldn’t.

Extreme weather is something I am used to; I live on the ocean and experience the storms and weather patterns that frequent the seas.

However, we are noticing changes, we are finding that storms are lasting longer and are occurring more frequently or at unusual times of the year, I am encountering vast mounds of seagrass taking over in areas where I previously saw none and I see less wildlife than expected.

Onboard my vessel Seaexplorer, I carry an ocean laboratory, so I can constantly measure ocean CO2 levels on all my races. This data is sent to my scientific partners and is analysed to give scientists a clearer picture of the oceans’ ability to uptake CO2 and store it within.

The data is showing us that we need to work as a unified group to seriously reduce our global CO2 footprint, we know that the ocean has a limit where it can no longer continue to absorb man-made CO2 and that this is having a negative impact on all life within her.

It is well known that soaring temperatures will leave places uninhabitable, that melting ice caps will release harmful trapped gases and cause sea waters to rise. It is also known that we need individuals, governments, industry and science to unite in order to tackle these issues.

We already see this with our current partners, uniting many in the shipping industry to measure, report and reduce the carbon footprint of their fleets under the Seaexplorer banner is a small but necessary step.

I am directly impacted by these changes in the Ocean, with warmer summers, ice drifts are happening sooner, so my race route may become longer or due to a hurricane, I may have to reroute my course. These consequences for my race are immaterial when you consider them.

What happens over the next 10 years will determine the state of the planet we hand over to our children. Our joint vision for the Arctic is that of a clean, safe, secure, sustainable and prosperous region.

This must be achieved through cooperation, onshore at the political negotiation tables and offshore within the entire ocean community.

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