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Uncertainty About Canada's Arctic Vision

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By R. Nastranis | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

BERLIN (IDN) - While scientists and environmentalists watch the Arctic as a bellwether of global climate change, and nations and corporations seek to exploit its oil, gas and mineral reserves as well as new shipping routes, rapid and even abrupt changes occurring on multiple fronts across the polar region are threatening to cause irreversible impact on ecosystems and societies, according to experts.

"The Arctic is changing so fast and in so many interacting ways that it affects the very fabric of ecosystems and societies,” says Annika E. Nilsson, a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and scientific coordinator of the first phase of the Arctic Resilience Report (ARR). "We have to be prepared for surprises, and we need to increase the capacity to adapt and to grapple with conflicting priorities."

Launched in 2011 as a priority of the two-year Swedish chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the ARR is collaboration between experts in the Nordic countries, Russia, Canada, and the U.S. representing a range of knowledge traditions, including indigenous perspectives.

The Arctic Council comprises Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Six international organisations representing the polar region's Indigenous Peoples have permanent participant status.

A 120-page report released on May 15 at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, lays out the ARR's initial findings and includes a preliminary assessment of critical thresholds in the Arctic, an analysis of societies' adaptive capacity, and four pilot case studies. The ARR final report will be released in May 2015.

The Kiruna meeting marked the end of the Swedish chairmanship and the beginning of the Canadian chairmanship May 2013-May 2015.

"In its two years as Chair of the Arctic Council, Sweden has contributed to strengthening cooperation within the Arctic Council. At this meeting, we have adopted a vision statement for the future of the Arctic shared by the Arctic states and the Indigenous Peoples. This sends an important signal to the rest of the world," said the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt after the meeting.

The 'Vision for the Arctic' – described as a forward-looking statement – outlines the Arctic states' and indigenous Permanent Participants' joint vision for the development of the region. “Canada is honoured to assume the Chairmanship of the Council,” said Minister Leona Aglukkaq. "The theme for Canada’s Chairmanship is Development for the People of the North," she added.

During the Canadian Chairmanship, the Arctic Council program will include the establishment of a Circumpolar Business Forum to provide new opportunities for business to engage with the Council; continued work on oil pollution prevention; and action to address short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon and methane.

Canada's Arctic encompasses approximately 40 percent of the nation's total land mass and has about 85,000 residents. This broadly defined region has two-thirds of Canada's marine coastline and a sea which extends from Alaska to the Strait of Belle Isle.

Arctic Council States also signed a new, legally-binding Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic which aims at substantially improving procedures for combatting oil spills in the Arctic.

A number of important reports were presented to the Ministers at the meeting:

- The Arctic Biodiversity Assessment produced by the Arctic Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna group (CAFF) presents the status and trends in Arctic biodiversity based on best available science informed by traditional ecological knowledge, and includes policy recommendations for Arctic biodiversity conservation.

- The Arctic Ocean Review coordinated by the Arctic Council’s working group on Protection of the Marine Environment (PAME) analyses the global and regional instruments and measures that govern the Arctic marine environment, and provides policy recommendations for Arctic states to strengthen the conservation and sustainable use of the Arctic marine environment.

- The Arctic Ocean Acidification assessment produced by the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) working group is the first major scientific study of the impacts that acidification of the Arctic Ocean may have on Arctic marine ecosystems, and the northern communities and indigenous peoples who depend on them.

Concerns

Commenting change in the Arctic Council leadership, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) experts Kristofer Bergh, Linda Jakobson and Ekaterina Klimenko said: "For the second time since its inception in 1996, the Arctic Council will now be chaired by Canada, a country which by geography and national identity perceives itself as an Arctic superpower. Canada's stated priorities are to develop the Arctic region economically and improve the livelihoods of Arctic communities."

"However, some Arctic stakeholders have raised concerns that much of the environmental agenda might get lost in the process and that the coming two years will see a Council preoccupied with a Canadian, rather than a circumpolar agenda," SIPRI experts said.

As Matthew Willis a Research Associate at RUSI (Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies) points out: "Most strikingly, Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, chose the 15th of April – exactly one month before . . . (the) summit . . . – to announce the establishment of a new forum, the Arctic Circle, whose vision appears diametrically opposed to the Canadian one."

"Canada has strong economic and political interests in the Arctic," SIPRI experts say. "One of those interests became obvious during the Kiruna meeting when the European Union's bid for permanent observer status was stalled because of the EU's ban on seal skin products, which is not popular with the Canadian indigenous population."

SIPRI experts averred: "The Nordic chairmanships may prove tough acts to follow. Given the transparency and openness that characterized the Swedish chairmanship, together with the Council's institutional development and acceptance of new observers, the pressure is now on Canada to affirm that the Arctic is headed towards a new stage of multilateral cooperation."

The Arctic Council's ministerial meeting in Kiruna also highlighted the global interest in the Arctic region. "The fact that six non-Arctic states – China, India, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Singapore – were granted permanent observer status indicates an opening up of the Council to the world and signifies a breakthrough that rejects ideas of Arctic isolationism," Brgh, Jakobson and Klimenko said in an expert comment.

In particular, they said, the Council's deeper engagement will encourage China to pay serious attention to legitimate environmental concerns pertaining to shipping and possible resource exploration in the fragile Arctic environment.

A SIPRI paper explains that China wants to be part of the Arctic order and, as a rising power, emphasizes the global implications of the Arctic's melting ice. Although several non-Chinese observers have described China’s actions in the Arctic as 'more assertive', and the Chinese Government has taken steps to protect what it perceives as its key interests in the region, China’s Arctic policies are still in a nascent stage of formulation, says the policy paper.

According to its authors, Linda Jakobson and Jingchao Peng, the paper represents the first comprehensive mapping of the agencies and individuals involved in the formulation of Arctic policies and an assessment of the motives underlying China’s Arctic activities. The authors show that, while China recognizes that it is an 'Arctic outsider' – without sovereign rights in the Arctic – it nevertheless sees numerous economic opportunities opening up in there. It consequently seeks to influence discussions and decisions on how the Arctic should be governed.

According to SIPRI experts, the Nordic states have strengthened the Council. All eight Arctic Council member states have now had an opportunity to sit in the chairman's seat. Sweden, whose two-year chairmanship of the Council ended May 15, "has not pushed its national interests firmly in the Council, preferring instead to act as an honest broker".

Over the past six years – in which three Nordic states, Norway, Denmark and Sweden have held the chair position – the Council has been significantly strengthened institutionally. It is clearly taking steps to become an international organization.

The Arctic states have negotiated two legally binding agreements – on search and rescue, and on marine oil pollution preparedness and response. The Council has also established a Secretariat in Tromsø, Norway. This indicates a development from a decision-shaping body to a decision-making institution.

"The Nordic chairmanships may prove tough acts to follow. Given the transparency and openness that characterized the Swedish chairmanship, together with the Council's institutional development and acceptance of new observers, the pressure is now on Canada to affirm that the Arctic is headed towards a new stage of multilateral cooperation," SIPRI experts say. [IDN-InDepthNews – May 16, 2013]

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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