Arctic News Roundup: 25-31 October

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) According to UArctic, this year’s Greenland Science Week will take place from the 1st to 14th of November in several locales in Greenland. The event will include presentations, workshops and films. The main languages of these activities will include Greenlandic, Danish and English. Further information about the program can be found via this link.

2) Stundin, an Iceland-based site for news and analysis, published an article which questioned the necessity of (large scale) conferences about climate change. This piece examined several international events on this subject, including the Arctic Circle Assembly, (which recently concluded its 2021 event in Reykjavík), and the upcoming COP26 government summit in Glasgow. Some experts interviewed in the article concurred that some events could ideally be held online in order to reduce carbon emissions caused by transportation and other related activities.

3) The CBC News service published a story, as part of its ongoing Our Changing Planet series, about how climate change in the Canadian north is negatively affecting nesting patterns of local birds. Warmer temperatures has meant earlier appearances of polar bears, which threaten both bird populations and their nests, as well as affecting northern communities which need to exercise greater caution about larger numbers of bears nearby.

4) Also on the subject of the upcoming environmental meeting in Glasgow, The Economist published a lead story on the difficulties ahead in securing an international deal to combat climate change and to reduce the current pace of global warming. The story argued that although it is unlikely that the Glasgow event will produce the best results, these sorts of government-level gatherings remain crucial for ensuring that the world can take steps, including eventually phasing out fossil fuels, to ensure a safer planet in the future.

5) ABC News in the United States released a video analysis of how melting permafrost of Siberia, Russia, has been reshaping the landscape and causing damage to infrastructure, such as buildings and roads, due to climate change and warming regional temperatures.

Red Light / Green Light: The European Union Upgrades its Arctic Policy

[Photo by Alexandre Lallemande via Unsplash]

by Marc Lanteigne

As the field of Arctic foreign policy continues to expand, the European Union has often found itself being the odd one out. The EU’s membership includes Arctic states Denmark (via Greenland), Finland and Sweden, as well as several non-Arctic governments which have developed extensive polar interests, including France, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. However, the Union itself has continued to search for its place in the Arctic, including seeking, (as yet unsuccessfully), a formal observer role in the Arctic Council.

The EU has now focused on the Arctic as an area of emerging policy importance due to the region’s developing economic, political and strategic aspects. With the release this month of the Union’s latest Arctic policy, the organisation has expressed its interest in engaging the Arctic, including with the aim to address regional climate change challenges. However, the document was not without its controversies, most of which involving the question of how ‘Arctic’ the EU actually is.

There are three main takeaways from ‘A Stronger EU Engagement for a Peaceful, Sustainable and Prosperous Arctic’ [pdf]. First, the Union sees itself as within the Arctic, and that although the Arctic states themselves have the ‘primary responsibility’ of addressing the problems facing the far north, many of these challenges extend far outside of the Arctic and so multilateral cooperation is a necessity.

With the argument in the document that local and regional actors cannot address the concerns of the Arctic alone, the paper argues that ‘the EU’s full engagement in Arctic matters is a geopolitical necessity’. With that, the Union joins a growing number of governments, including the European non-Arctic states listed above, as well as others such as China, Estonia, India, Ireland, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, which have identified themselves [pdf] to varying degrees as current or future Arctic stakeholders, underscoring the rapidly blurring line between ‘Arctic’ and ‘non-Arctic’ in regards to matters of governance. 

The second point is that the EU has identified climate change to be the paramount threat to the region, with global warming contributing to cascade effects which include accelerated loss of sea ice and permafrost, changed weather patterns, rising ocean levels, and dangers to local ecosystems; all of which have profound effects well beyond the Arctic itself. To face these challenges, the paper called for expanded research and education initiatives, and greater cooperation with non-EU Arctic actors Iceland, Norway and Russia as well as Greenland, while noting the relevance of the Union’s ‘Fit for 55’ policy programme of cutting EU greenhouse gas emissions by fifty-five percent between now and 2030.

EU Commissioner for Fisheries, Oceans and the Environment Virginijus Sinkevičius speaking at the Arctic Circle Conference in Reykjavík, October 2021 [Photo by Arctic Circle]

Another environmental initiative which generated considerable discussion, and at times derision, was a call to ‘push for oil, coal and gas to remain in the ground’, including in the Arctic, in order to combat climate change. The EU is now pressing for a halt to future fossil fuel exploration in the far north on environmental grounds, adding to the partial moratoriums placed on Arctic oil and gas activities by Canada and more recently by the Joe Biden government in the United States and the government of Greenland.

To say that fossil fuel policies in the Arctic are in flux would be a significant understatement. After testing new price lows at the start of the global pandemic in early 2020, the current, albeit erratic, economic recovery in many parts of the world has placed strains on both supply chains and fuel stores, leading to concerns about an probable energy shock. With global oil prices now hovering at US$85 a barrel, garnering support for a longer term halt to Arctic fossil fuel drilling may be a much more difficult sell at this time, especially to Arctic states which have a strong reliance on oil gas for their recovering economies.

Unsurprisingly, Russia was less than enthusiastic about the EU proposal, given the importance the government of Vladimir Putin has placed on developing its Arctic oil and gas industries in anticipation of growing world demand. Speaking at the Russian Energy Week (Российская энергетическая неделя) event in Moscow this month, President Putin alluded [in Russian] to the energy supply issues facing much of Europe this autumn and referred to the EU proposal as political in nature and out of step with the current state of energy demands. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak also publicly dismissed the EU plan as both politically motivated and unworkable.

Moreover, Moscow had announced last month that it would be expanding its oil and gas exploration into additional parts of Siberia, with many of the country’s northern communities banking on future prosperity as the Russian Arctic prepares for new energy, transportation and infrastructure projects.

Some in Norwegian policy circles were also unimpressed with the EU’s proposed Arctic fossil fuel ban, with one editorial [in Norwegian] describing the Union’s proposed ban as running counter not only to Norwegian economic interests but also those of the United States and Russia. The timing of the EU’s Arctic paper was also significant for Oslo, given that the incoming minority government of Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre had announced [in Norwegian], at about the same time as the EU plan had been released, that oil and gas would continue to be a major part of the country’s economic policies, albeit in line with commitments [in Norwegian] to reducing carbon emissions.

This stance put an end to much pre-election speculation that an incoming centre-left government coalition led by Mr Støre’s Labour Party would seek to reduce Norwegian fossil fuel extraction due to environmental concerns. Attempts by Labour and the Centre Party to form a majority coalition with the Socialist Left Party (Sosialistisk Venstreparti / SV), which is strongly in favour of reducing carbon emissions, were scuttled over the oil issue earlier this month.

Heiðar Guðjónsson, Vice-Chair of the Arctic Economic Council, also expressed scepticism about the viability of the moratorium proposal, commenting at the recently concluded Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík that it would have a negative effect on overall regional investment plans. Also at the Arctic Circle event, Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s Commissioner for Fisheries, Oceans and the Environment, spoke [video] about the paper, framing the proposal to end oil and gas development in the European Arctic as a case of leading by example, with the hopes that other parts of the Arctic will consider similar steps. With the EU proposal published, the next step will be ratification by the organisation’s twenty-seven member governments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]

Pressure from various parties continues to be applied, including in the wake of the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the upcoming COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, to address the looming threat of climate change in the Arctic by implementing stronger measures to curb fossil fuel emissions. However, the EU paper has further illustrated what could be developing policy split within the Arctic over the role of oil in the region’s economic future.

The third aspect of the EU’s paper was the acknowledgement that, despite general reservations in region about bringing security policy into Arctic policy dialogues, expanding economic and scientific interests in the Arctic requires ‘enhanced safety and security systems’. The document described the growing role of NATO in the Arctic, as well as EU interests in closer cooperation with the alliance, as well as the problems caused by Russia’s ‘increased assertiveness’ in the region and the engagement of non-Arctic actors, including China, in the far north. In addition to acknowledging the growing number of governments outside of the far north which have been seeking formal observer roles in the Arctic Council, the paper confirmed that the EU would also try again to seek that status.

While most of the EU’s policy document focused on civilian security fields, such as search and rescue and crisis responses, there was also the mention of ‘political-military elements’ which, in addition to environmental and economic concerns, needed to be included in the Union’s evolving ‘strategic foresight’ in the Arctic.

With this policy paper, the European Union has clarified that it seeks to widen and deepen its role in the Arctic in anticipation of ongoing climate change threats but also the rapidly-evolving political and strategic situation there, as the field of Arctic politics becomes more crowded, and at times more unpredictable.

Arctic News Roundup: 4-10 October

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) The Arctic Council Secretariat, based in Tromsø, Norway, has announced that it is seeking a new Advisor position. Further information can be found via this link.

2) As the Greenlandic news agency KNR reported, the European Union has decided to provide a financial package worth approximately euro 225 million to the Greenland government, of which around ninety percent will go to the country’s educational sector and the rest will be to develop renewable energy, hydrogen production and other related ‘green’ research.

3) According to Reuters, the diamond mining firm De Beers had tasked the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) to conduct an inspection of the seabed off Greenland’s west coast for evidence of potential diamond deposits. The eight-day survey concluded with hopes that the region could be the site of new gemstone mining opportunities, despite questions about the possible environmental impact.

4) An extensive report on the environmental and economic impact of thawing permafrost in Arctic Russia was published by the Wall Street Journal. Siberia has been viewed as a major emerging component to the Russian economy, but weakening permafrost in much of the region has begun to threaten critical infrastructure as well as homes and businesses. The diesel oil spill at Norilsk in May 2020 was also blamed on permafrost erosion which ruptured a holding tank.

5) The Canadian news magazine Maclean’s published an article examining the damage of underwater noise on the Arctic narwhal species. The piece explained that, due to the economic potential of more accessible natural resources in the Arctic region, maritime traffic in the area has been increasing. High volume noise, produced from large ships, under the water can severely disturb the normal behaviour patterns of the narwhal. A specific problem area has been Canada’s Baffin Island, where mining and surveys around Tasiujaq have been accompanied by a sharp uptick in ship transits, which have been blamed for adverse effects on local narwhal populations.

Arctic News Roundup: 27 September – 3 October

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) According to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Arctic Office, a United Kingdom-based organisation, Harland Huset, Britain’s Arctic station located in Svalbard, Norway, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary this week. This facility, opened in 1991 on Ny-Ålesund, is the only research site overseen the UK in the Arctic, and has been successfully undertaking various scientific research tasks, including monitoring local climate change.

2) The New York Times published an essay on the difficult choices facing Greenland regarding its nascent mining industry. The island has been at the centre of growing global demands for rare earths and other strategic metals and minerals, but at the same time many in Greenland have expressed worries about the environmental impact of a massive increase in mining activity. The town of Narsaq, which is the closest town to the now-cancelled Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeld) uranium and rare earths project, was profiled in the report as an example of local opposition to extractive industries.

3) As reported in the High North News, three Scandinavian countries, namely Denmark, Sweden and Norway, have signed an agreement strengthening their defence communication and cooperation, in order to cope with emerging security issues in the Nordic region. Denmark and Norway are members of NATO, but Sweden is not. However, Stockholm has begun to more directly align its security interests towards its Nordic neighbours.

4) Also from High North News, it was reported that despite ongoing frigid relations between the United States and Russia, direct investment from American companies in Russia during 2020 surpassed US$2 billion, according to surveys undertaken by the American Chamber of Commerce and the consulting group Ernst & Young. These numbers reflect the fact that Russia is still seen as a potentially lucrative investment area.

5) As the Greenlandic news organisation KNR detailed, Múte B. Egede, the Prime Minister of Greenland, has also taken on the portfolio of foreign affairs. This change took place after the previous foreign minister, Pele Broberg, stepped down from that post after making controversial comments on the future for the nation to the Danish newspaper Berlingske. During that interview, Broberg suggested that only ethnic Inuit peoples in Greenland and their descendants should be permitted to vote in a future referendum on independence, touching off public criticism.

Arctic News Roundup: 20-26 September

Autumn in Reykjavík [Photo by Mingming Shi]

by Mingming Shi

1) In an interview with RÚV, Oddur Sigurðsson, a geologist, expressed his concerns over the future of glaciers in Iceland, which might disappear completely in the next two centuries. He also called for further steps to be taken to record the history of the country’s glaciers.

2) As RÚV also reported, Icelanders voted for the country’s next parliament on the 25 September. According to the initial results, the three parties (the Independence Party, the Progressive Party and the Left Greens), which form the current government coalition attained 38 seats out of a total of 63 in the Alþingi, which suggested that the current configuration will be able to stay in office.

3) The Barents Observer wrote that Norway would be lifting its COVID-19 restrictions, including removing the public one-meter social distancing rule. This announcement has been viewed as a huge step back to normal life for the country.

4) According to Sermitsiaq, a local Greenlandic news service, four Ph.D. degrees were awarded this week at the University of Greenland (Ilisimatusarfik) on Greenland related topics. In addition, an honorary doctorate was awarded to Aqqaluk Lynge, the founder of the political party Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) and a former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, for his decades of fighting for the rights of Indigenous persons.

5) A Joint Declaration between the Governments of Greenland and Iceland was virtually signed on 23 September. The agreement [pdf file here] calls for increased economic cooperation between Nuuk and Reykjavík, as well as a feasibility study of a potential bilateral free trade agreement. The governments also agreed to examine ways of developing regional tourism opportunities as the global economy recovers from the pandemic.