Arctic News Roundup: 21-7 June 2021

[Photo by Joyce McCown via Unsplash]

by Mingming Shi

1) According to RÚV, Iceland has been witnessing a healthy recovery of its tourism industry so far this summer, with an increasing number of foreign visitors as compared to 2020. Tourists from the United States are one of the largest number of visitors at present. However, there are also problems with this trend. Some tourism companies are encountering difficulties with employee recruitment. Additionally, the decreasing usage of the Icelandic language has been tied to the growth of the tourism sector, an issue which had existed well before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

2) CBC News, a Canada-based news agency, published a photography essay, featuring new graduates in Northern Canada. The image collection, which ranged kindergarteners to university students, included brief background stories behind the pictures.

3) An international ban (Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean) [pdf] on commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean came into force this week, as reported by Arctic Today. China was the most recent country to ratify the agreement, doing so in May this year, and the ban’s stipulations will remain in place for at least sixteen years.

4) The Economist reported on unexpected scientific findings which suggested that dinosaurs may have lived for long periods of time in Arctic regions. A report in the journal Current Biology described fossil discoveries found in Alaska which suggested that dinosaurs were able to inhabit cooler ecosystems than conventional wisdom originally suggested.

5) The Anglo-Norse Society, based in London, has announced a new scholarship to sponsor one British postgraduate student to study for an Arctic subject-related Master’s programme at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway. Please refer to this link for further information.

6) The High North News reported findings, cited in the Zürich-based Polar Journal, of the oldest layer of permafrost ever found to date. The discovery was made near the town of Batagay (Батагай) in the Sakha Republic, Siberia. The permafrost in question has an estimated age of 650,000 years.

Norway’s Energy Policies: Caught Between ‘Black Gold’ and Green Ambitions?

[Photo by Mr Karl via Unsplash]

by Marc Lanteigne

During the next parliamentary elections in Norway, to be held in September this year, it is inevitable that the economy will be a major issue. Overall, the country’s economic picture has shown signs of improvement during the first half of 2021, a trend which may continue should the country’s planned reopening policies be successful and border controls are able to be fully lifted in the short term.

The outcome of the election is, for the moment, uncertain, given that although Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party (Høyre) remains popular, including for her government’s pandemic policies, recent polls suggested that the opposition Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet), led by Jonas Gahr Støre, was enjoying an edge in public support. A potential wild card in the vote will likely be the Centre Party (Senterpartiet), which has emerged from being largely viewed as an agrarian and peripheral organisation to one that has caught much voter attention, including in rural areas and in Norway’s northern regions, due to its support of government decentralisation, lower taxes, and economic protectionism.

Connected to many of these issues is the looming question of the direction of Norway’s energy policy, and specifically regarding its omnipresent fossil fuel industry. Since the late 1960s, petroleum has been at the core of the country’s economy, permitting its governments to develop and expand the Government Pension Fund – Global, the largest such endeavour of its kind, (commonly referred to as the ‘Oil Fund’ or Oljefondet). At the time of writing, the value of the fund was approximately NOK 11.6 trillion, or US$1.34 trillion.

As a major oil exporter, Norway bore the brunt of the collapse of oil prices at the start of the global pandemic, with plans for offshore exploration (initially) sharply curtailed. As the global economy begins a halting recovery, with many hoping to resume travel by land, sea and air in the coming months, petroleum markets have responded accordingly. This month, oil prices per barrel rose to over US$70, prompting speculation that as a result of pent-up demand and an improved global health situation, a return to US$100-plus per barrel levels, not seen since 2014, could be a reality by next year. This could represent a significant boost to the Norwegian economy, as well as to future exploration policies, (Just this week, the Italian firm Eni reported that it had discovered a significant new oil patch in the North Sea).

Even before the rebounding of international fossil fuel prices, Oslo had insisted that it would not be abandoning new oil projects, as evidenced by a government announcement in June last year that Norway planned to continue exploration and development in its Arctic waters. During 2020, it was reported that Norwegian oil investments and production actually increased from the previous year despite uncertainties over the future of prices and demand. This month, the country’s Minister of Petroleum and Energy Tina Bru announced that eighty-four offshore blocks, including seventy in the Barents Sea, would be open to oil concerns for bidding.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]

These objectives, however, have begun to generate a growing level of pushback both from environmental organisations and from international actors concerned about the growing disconnect between the country’s fossil fuel policies and its international commitments to combatting climate change. This controversy may factor into the upcoming election, as for example, the country’s Green Party [in Norwegian] (Miljøpartiet de Grønne) has pushed for the halting of new oil developments and the closure of existing projects in the southeastern Barents Sea region. The country’s Christian Democratic (Kristelig Folkeparti) and Liberal (Venstre) parties have also affirmed their opposition to further fossil fuel exploration.

Both the Conservatives and Labour are in favour of further oil development, including in the Arctic, while the Centre Party, true to its name, supports [in Norwegian] a measured reduction in extraction activity, and calls for no drilling in areas of high fishing activities, as well as the Lofoten and Vesterålen regions in the Norwegian Arctic. In the likely event that a coalition government, including smaller parties, will be required to form the next government, some compromises regarding oil and gas may be inevitable.

Norwegian energy policies have also been the focus of high-profile legal challenges. In December 2020, the country’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of Oslo in a lawsuit brought forward against the government by environmental groups, including Greenpeace, which charged that Norway’s oil policies were in violation of the country’s constitution, specifically Article 112, which statesEvery person has the right to an environment that is conducive to health and to a natural environment whose productivity and diversity are maintained. Natural resources shall be managed on the basis of comprehensive long-term considerations which will safeguard this right for future generations as well.’

This legal saga is not over, however, as green groups as well as Sámi representatives have now taken the matter to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that Barents Sea drilling projects are contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights [pdf].

Ongoing concerns about the connections between Arctic fossil fuel extraction and climate change in the Arctic are adding to the uncomfortable spotlight being placed on Norway’s Arctic policies. Last month, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report stressing the need for the world to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 in order to prevent future climate change effects and keep global warming below the targeted 1.5°C level. However, reaching this ambitious goal would mean an end to all future fossil fuel development. The Norwegian government, not unexpectedly, offered a tepid response to the IEA’s findings, and showed little indication of a dramatic policy change, suggesting that the country’s oil and gas policies remain a ‘third rail’ in domestic politics.

[Photo by Markus Spiske via Unsplash]

Yet despite ongoing government support for the country’s fossil fuel industry, Norway has also been trying to have its cake and eat it too by also being a strong supporter of environmentally friendly policies within the country and globally. This stance has been described as a ‘paradox’, given Oslo’s interests in drawing a clear line between its energy and environmental policies. In January this year, the Solberg administration announced an ambitious set of plans to allow Norway to continue its adherence to the Paris climate accords, including aggressive emissions reduction targets and a rise in carbon taxes by 2030 to NOK 2000 (US$235) per tonne . 

Norway has also received much international attention for its policies encouraging the use of electric vehicles, (which were also the subject of recent humourous advertising campaigns in both the United States and New Zealand). The country leads in the number of EVs per capita, primarily as a result of tax regulations and government-backed incentives, and Oslo has called for all new passenger vehicles sold to be zero-emission by 2025. As of the beginning of this year, over 54% of the cars sold in Norway were EVs.

This month, the market for these vehicles was set to expand further with the announcement that Chinese auto company BYD (Biyadi 比亚迪) would shortly be sending the first of its planned Tang electric SUVs to Norway for sale. Oslo has an even loftier goal of replacing all of its current commercial airplanes with electric versions by 2040, and this month the government also agreed to survey more areas for the potential development of wind farms.

It remains to be seen for how much longer Norway can continue to maintain its current ‘dual track’ energy policies, especially in light of a more organised political opposition and greater international attention. As the election grows nearer, energy may become the most visible subject of disagreement amongst Norway’s parties and voters as the country continues to walk the line between its oil and gas interests and its determination to be active in green politics.

Arctic News Roundup: 7-13 June

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) As RÚV has reported, this summer Iceland is preparing to launch its largest array of roadworks projects since the country’s banking crisis of 2008. According to Vegagerðin, (the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration), planned changes include road restructuring measures to improve driver safety, as well as a potential bridge at Ölfusá.

2) According to the Greenlandic news service KNR, Mette Frederiksen, the Prime Minister of Denmark, expressed her wishes to grant Greenland and the Faroe Islands, both part of the Danish Kingdom, more representation at the Arctic Council. In addition to promising a ‘more prominent and active role’ for both governments during Council proceedings, the Danish leader also called for Greenlandic representatives to speak first at future Council meetings, followed by the Faroe Islands and then Denmark. Greenland also would be the main signatory to any future Council declarations. Greenlandic representation in the Arctic Council had been a political sore point between Copenhagen and Nuuk under previous governments, including in 2013 when then-Greenlandic Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond opted to boycott the Council Ministerial meeting in Kiruna over what it saw was unfair treatment.

3) Researchers have begun to look more closely at the phenomenon of snow changing colours during spring months, including to shades of red, (which has often prompted nicknames like ‘glacier blood’ or ‘watermelon snow’). As described in the New York Times, although these odd colourations are commonly caused by algae blooms, climate change, including warming temperatures and extreme weather, as well as agricultural and sewage runoff, can also affect the appearance and intensity of algae within snow and ice.

4) An internship position, for a duration of ten-twelve months, full time, is being advertised at the Arctic Council Secretariat, located in Tromsø, Norway. Please check for details at this link.

5) Pele Broberg, the Minister for Industry, Trade, Foreign Affairs and Climate of Greenland, was invited to an online discussion [video] hosted by the Arctic Circle as part of the organization’s Virtual lecture series. Broberg described the development and further ambition of Greenland’s foreign relations. In addition to confirming that a representative office would be established later this year in Beijing, the Minister also emphasized the significance of strengthening the country’s relationships with other Asian partners such as Japan. 

Arctic News Roundup: 31 May – 6 June

Bankastræti, a main road in downtown Reykjavík [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) Alda Sigmundsdóttir, an author of many well-read publications on Iceland, wrote a commentary in the Canadian news service Globe and Mail about how her home country has been shaped economically and societally by tourism in the last decade. In addition to the national economy being revived by the tourism sector, she described the problems in Iceland which tourism growth had created, including local concerns about Icelandic language protection, excessively pricey hotels for domestic tourists, and inability of some facilities to host foreign guests. However, the COVID-19 pandemic altered the situation drastically and the tourism sector was damaged severely. As a result, tourism-related companies restarted with a focus on attracting local visitors. However, with the gradual recovery of the sector with an increasing number of post-pandemic tourists from abroad, Alda’s piece called for a better strategy for the industry.  

2) As the United Kingdom continues to carve out a post-Brexit trade policy, it was announced, as reported by BBC News, that a deal had been finalised with Iceland and Norway, along with Liechtenstein, to liberalise mutual trade and cut tariffs. All four countries are outside of the European Union, and the British government has been seeking to diversify its trading partners since withdrawing from the EU in 2020. There remain various issues to be reconciled however, including the sensitive subject of access to Norwegian waters for British fishing vessels, and Norwegian concerns about competition from UK cheese and beef products.

3) A policy paper entitled ‘Estonia’s Interests and Opportunities in the Context of Global Developments in the Arctic’ was published by International Centre for Defence and Security (RKK-ICDS) – Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, in May. The paper discusses several aspects of the interests of the country in the High North, such as the impacts of climate change, security concerns, political, economic and scientific involvement of Estonia in regional affairs, contribution to Indigenous communities in the Arctic and other related subjects. A number of recommendations are provided by the authors, including a call for a comprehensive Arctic strategy. Estonia has been seeking formal observer status in the Arctic Council, and has embarked on a number of projects related to Arctic engagement.

4) As the New York Times reported, US President Joe Biden announced the suspension of plans to allow oil extraction leases, issued by the previous Trump administration, within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The ANWR is estimated to be abundant in oil resources but nevertheless is also home to diversified fauna and flora, and so fossil fuel extraction there has been opposed on environmental grounds.

5) The Arctic Institute published an overview which covers the latest Ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, which took place in Reykjavík, Iceland. The piece summarised the main achievement during the Chairing by Iceland, with a focus on sustainable development, the ambition of Russia for the following two years after assuming the position and its wishes for further dialogues with the Arctic neighbours. 

6) Also from The Arctic Institute, the organisation published an analytical article on marine resource disputes in the Arctic via three case studies, namely the Bering Sea, Barents Sea and the North Atlantic. Despite ongoing conflicts involving fishing rights in these waters, as the author argued, governments still tend to handle these problems carefully, and usually separate them from other subjects. Yet, combined with military related issues, fishing conflicts in the High North may be more aggravated. Existing, and potential, areas of scientific research and cooperation are seen as helping to mitigate these challenges.

Arctic News Roundup: 24-30 May

Fjords in Troms og Finnmark, Norway [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) According to Scientific American, Greenland’s thawing glaciers are suspected to be one of the sources of mercury pollution in the nearby fjords. This element can cause damage to marine systems and human health. However, at present, as the researchers have explained, there are still numerous potential causes to be investigated in order to better comprehend the situation.

2) The Arctic Institute published an introductory article, discussing conflict in the High North, given the US and some other Arctic states’ further military interests and policies in the region. This piece outlines the incentives for modern militarisation, including eagerness to develop regional natural resources and strengthening national capacities. Nevertheless, this is taking place alongside concerns such as the deterioration of the Arctic environment.

3) As the British news service The Independent has reported, Arctic regions in Russia are witnessing an unprecedented heat wave this month, and in some cases temperatures over 30°C. The Russian Arctic, including many parts of Siberia, have experienced higher than normal temperatures over the past few years, with the city of Verkhoyansk actually reaching 38°C in 2020.

4) The Danish Institute for International Studies / DIIS (Dansk Institut for Internationale Studier in Danish) published a commentary on the relationship between Denmark and Greenland in light of the 300th anniversary of Hans Egede’s missionary journey to Greenland. The authors analysed the variants of this dynamic under several circumstances, including for example, how the relationship has been altered from the perspective of decolonisation and the further pursuit of independence in Greenland, as well as the role of Greenland in Arctic politics.

5) CBC, a Canada-based news service, shared the story of Pepper, a German shepherd finding her own way to reunite with her family in Nunavut. Pepper’s family left home in Rankin Inlet, for a funeral of a family member in Whale Cove, by snowmobile. However, the dog decided to follow them even though she was supposed to stay at home, and amazingly, Pepper finally managed to make her way to Whale Cove, a small community seventy kilometres from home and met up with her family again.