Arctic News Roundup: 1-7 November

Happy Birthday Móri! [Photo by Mingming Shi]

by Mingming Shi

1) The five Nordic governments, along with official representatives from Åland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, jointly confirmed their commitment to increase cooperation on emergency preparation in the future, according to the Icelandic news service RÚV. At the Nordic Council meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark this week, the leaders of the Nordic nations demonstrated the consensus on the necessity of strengthening further collaboration to address crises and emergencies, including climate change and other security issues. 

2) The Atlantic, an American news magazine, published a photo essay spotlighting twenty-two pictures from the Faroe Islands, taken by the photographer Jonathan Nackstrand from Agence France-Presse. This photographic series features landscapes, fauna, and local communities on the islands.

3) It was reported by CBC News Canada’s Eye on the Arctic that the government of Greenland had agreed to join the Paris climate accords. This move was the latest in a series of environmental initiatives by the administration of Prime Minister Múte B. Egede in Nuuk, as his government had also suspended plans to develop a uranium and rare earths mine at Kuannersuit and called for a moratorium on oil and gas surveys in Greenland earlier this year. Alarms had been raised last month that Greenland’s ice sheet was facing serious strain due to warming temperatures, with concerns that the melt from the ice sheet could contribute to flooding in other parts of the world.

4) As Finland’s Yle News service reported, younger generations of reindeer herders in Finland have been encountering new challenges. First, reindeer husbandry as a traditional livelihood and lifestyle has been threatened by climate change which has affected the reindeers’ access to food supplies. In addition, increasing mental health concerns among younger herders, (as compared to their elders), and insufficient support for the growing number of female herders are also seen as major obstacles to be overcome.

5) 6 November marked the 18th birthday of Móri, who oversees the Feline Affairs Desk at Over the Circle, and also represents the image of Mingming on the site. As a cat, he is not an avid follower of Arctic politics.

Microphones On: The Arctic Circle’s Comeback

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Marc Lanteigne

Following a hiatus last year due to the global pandemic, and instead shifting to virtual presentations for much of 2020 and after, the Arctic Circle conference returned to Reykjavík this year, with a more modest schedule but still with much to discuss. With stringent access rules for participants, including antigen testing on the lower level of Harpa, the conference’s venue, and the wearing of multicoloured bracelets to signify the elapsed time since a last test, the conference was held in person this year, with some guest lecturers also participating remotely.

The event took place in the wake of several pivotal events in the Arctic since the last such gathering in late 2019, including the handover of the Arctic Council’s chair from Iceland to Russia, the return of the United States to regional diplomacy, including talks on climate change, and the much-discussed revised European Union Arctic policy paper which was published shortly before this conference began.

Environmental changes in the Arctic, including ice erosion, shifting weather patterns, and deterioration of permafrost throughout the far north, dominated panel discussions this year, but as with previous Arctic Circles, regional political issues were rarely far from the main agenda. Amongst the keynote speakers were familiar faces from  previous conferences, including US Senator Lisa Murkowski (R – Alaska), as well as First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, who emphasised the growing number of Scottish linkages with the high north since Edinburgh released its own Arctic policy paper in September 2019.

The conference venue at Harpa had thorough anti-Covid 19 guidelines [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

Also delivering speeches during the opening sessions was Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, appearing [video] shortly after the parliamentary elections in Iceland which resulted in the likely return of the governing coalition which PM Jakobsdóttir has led. Earlier in October, the Icelandic government published a revised Arctic policy [pdf] which highlighted the country’s concerns about climate change, while also calling for respect for international law and the peaceful settlements of regional disputes.

Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod spoke about promising examples of regional cooperation [video], including in balancing environmental responsibility with economic development for the benefit of Arctic citizens. Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Union Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, had the difficult task [video] of detailing the new EU Arctic White Paper, which included a call for a moratorium on Arctic fossil fuel extraction, a stance which was met with some scepticism in oil economies Alaska, Norway and Russia.

(Centre left-to-right) Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon [Photo by the Arctic Circle]

During the Q&A session, Mr Sinkevičius responded to concerns raised that the EU was seeking to unilaterally curtail future oil and gas development in the Arctic. He insisted the organisation was not trying to issue an ‘ultimatum’, but rather that climate change would eventually end the fossil fuel industries in the Arctic if serious steps were not taken quickly.

As with the 2019 Arctic Circle, Greenland featured prominently in this year’s panels and debates, including a keynote presentation [video] by Naaja Nathanielsen, Minister for Housing and Infrastructure as well as Justice, Minerals and Gender Equality. She spoke [video] of Greenland’s emergence as a regional partner, as well as outlining the intentions of the new government of Prime Minister Múte Bourup Egede towards banning uranium mining and halting further oil and gas exploration in the country.

Naaja Nathanielsen, Naalakkersuisoq (Minister) for Housing, Infrastructure,
Justice, Minerals and Gender Equality, Greenland
[Photo by the Arctic Circle]

There were also panels examining issues including education, West Nordic security concerns [video], deepening government-to-government cooperation, (and possible free trade), with Iceland [video], and regional diplomacy. As well, participants enjoyed a Greenland Night event featuring local music and culture. The underlying theme of Greenland’s participation in the Arctic Circle this year was the need for the country to be included in the various emerging branches of regional policy discourse, stressing ‘nothing about us, without us,’.

Senator Murkowski was part of a larger US governmental delegation to speak [video] about changes to American Arctic policy under the Joe Biden administration. After a shambolic approach to Arctic affairs by the previous government, Washington is now renewing interest in the region, once again taking part in multilateral regional dialogues, including in regards to climate change (the US re-joined the Paris climate agreement in February this year), while also improving the overall American Arctic presence via new icebreakers and diplomatic strategies. The Russian government presence at the event was muted compared with previous years, but Nikolay Korchunov, the country’s Arctic ambassador, did speak remotely [video] about Moscow’s upcoming Arctic policies as Council Chair.

Another staple of previous Arctic Circle events has been the showcasing of regional policies by non-Arctic states, and this year was no exception. Arctic adjacent governments including the Faroe and Orkney Islands outlined their engagement interests at the conference, while representatives of the European Union, via its new White Paper, sought to underscore its interest in deepening its interests in Arctic diplomacy and environmental discourses.

Discussing Arctic security challenges. l-r, Marc Lanteigne (University of Tromsø / editor, Over the Circle), Egill Þór Níelsson (Icelandic Centre for Research / University of
Iceland and University of Lapland), Sara Olsvig, (Former Vice Premier and Minister for Social Affairs, Families, Gender Equality and Justice / Ilisimatusarfik – University of Greenland), Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, (Member of the Danish Parliament for Inuit Ataqatigiit, Greenland), Halla Hrund Logadóttir, (Director General, National Energy Authority, Iceland)
[Photo by the Arctic Circle]

With an Arctic governmental white paper expected to be published by France in the near future, Olivier Poivre d’Arvor, Ambassador for Polar and Maritime Issues, spoke about the core of current French Arctic policy being ‘science, science and science again’ [video]. Works by other non-Arctic states, including Britain, Latvia and Poland, were also featured in panels dedicated to regional science diplomacy.

Science was also on the agenda during the presentation by Jongmoon Choi, Vice-Foreign Minister of the Republic of (South) Korea, who accentuated [video] the need for ongoing diplomacy, including via the Arctic Council, between Arctic and non-Arctic actors. He also noted Korea’s contributions to Arctic science, via partnerships, regular dialogues with China and Japan, as well as research undertaken by the Korean icebreaker Areon, (with another research icebreaker, dedicated to Arctic missions, planned for 2027). It was also announced during the conference that Tokyo would be hosting [video] an Arctic Circle Breakout Forum in March 2022, in conjunction with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

Although there was not a high-level governmental delegation from China to the conference this year, the country’s role in the Arctic was nonetheless discussed during several different panels. There were also presentations [video] about the status of the Beijing-backed Polar Silk Road, which was described as progressing, despite several setbacks with proposed PSR projects in the Nordic region resulting in this part of the Belt and Road being more fully concentrated in Russia and East Asia.  

A melting ice block placed outside of Harpa [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

In addition to the Tokyo Forum, another major announcement at the Arctic Circle this year was the inauguration [video] of the Frederik Paulsen Arctic Academic Action Award, which recognises scientific achievement in the combatting of regional climate change. The prize was awarded to Professor Trevor Bell (Memorial University, Newfoundland) for his work in developing the SmartICE Project, an endeavour which integrates Indigenous knowledge with monitoring technology to measure changes in local sea ice patterns for the protection of communities and maritime transits.

As the Arctic Track II network in the Arctic begins to revive following the global pandemic, there will continue to be debates over what has changed and what hasn’t, in the Arctic, during the past two years. With the return of the Arctic Circle, however, the linkages between policymakers and specialists in the region appear poised to be restored at a time when the far north is under an ever-brighter global spotlight.

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.