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Polar Development

What the EU’s New Arctic Policy Omits

09/15/2016, BY ANTONIA SOHNS

A view over the bow of the MV Ortelius near Spitzbergen. © Smudge 9000 via flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
A ship in the Arctic

Nations both close and distant to the Arctic Circle are increasingly becoming engaged in the North as the European Union’s new policy for the Arctic shows. The plan is a step forward in putting the region on the map of international attention but it speaks volumes by what it leaves out. 

One of the world’s regions most dramatically affected by climate change is the Arctic: warming has occurred here at twice the global average and last year the sea ice extent was the fourth lowest on record. And although the North remains remote to most of the world, the future of its development influences the planet’s climate and geopolitical stability. 

In view of this, many nations are increasingly becoming engaged in Arctic issues. As global warming advances and the development of the polar region proceeds, even countries distant from the Arctic Circle will be affected by its evolving importance to shipping, energy and resource production, research and security.

The European Union’s new policy for the Arctic – the first “integrated” EU policy to the region, according to its authors – is a reflection of the increased attention Brussels is placing on the North. The EU member countries of Denmark, Finland and Sweden own territory in the Arctic. They are also members of the Arctic Council, which together with the other circumpolar nations – Canada, Russia, the U.S., Norway and Iceland – primarily govern Northern development.

Climate changes threatens the Arctic – and offers opportunities

In the Arctic, climate change is altering the frozen landscape from the tangible disappearance of ice and intensifying storms, to the physical and chemical shifts in the environment that warp the land and warm the sea. Arctic waters are acidifying which may reduce populations of calcifying organisms, including oysters, clams and corals, and lead to perilous ecological consequences throughout the marine food chain. 

Additionally, while the Arctic has played a vital role in regulating planetary temperatures and has acted as a sink for long-range pollution, the region may increasingly contribute to climate change as greenhouse gases escape from thawing permafrost. 

However, the new Arctic will also affect geopolitics and generate new business opportunities. The rising temperatures may bring forth fishing grounds as species migrate north into warmer waters. In the case of increased shipping, tourism and resource development, new revenue could stimulate local economies. This may lead to heightened international cooperation or it may create tensions.

Arctic nations will mine minerals such as uranium, iron ore, nickel, and phosphorous. Finland, Sweden and Norway have been pursuing these economic ventures and many mining companies from Australia and China are eager to get involved, vying for contracts in the north. Finland has designated one-eighth of the country for mining which mirrors commitment from other nations such as Russia which is pushing north to extract oil and gas resources from the Arctic. 

However, the polar boom of development is making environmentalists increasingly uneasy, as it will heavily affect global carbon dioxide emissions levels and the sensitive Arctic environment. Many experts state that the region is unprepared for widespread resource development due to lack of technology, pollution control, and other infrastructure.

Silence on fossil fuels

The EU adopted its new Arctic policy on 20 June 2016. It commits the Union to protecting the Arctic through sustainable development and reducing the significant risks posed by global warming to the region. The plan contains 39 actions that focus on three main areas: climate change and environment, sustainable development and international cooperation.

The plan contains new emphasis on renewable energies, non-extractive industries and new technologies. It also limits expectations about hydrocarbon and minerals extraction in the region and stresses the need for a low-carbon economy. This reflects the well-documented commitments to environmental policy and climate protection by many European Union nations. 

However, when it comes to concrete steps working against global warming in the polar region, the new EU plan often remains silent. Among other concerns, it doesn’t mention the reduction of black carbon and methane emissions or the banning of heavy fuel oil use by ships in the Arctic. What is more, the EU does not state that it would reduce its reliance on fossil fuels from the Arctic. Yet, this is paramount for a truly sustainable development of the region and beyond.

As of 2012, Norway supplied the EU with 31 percent of its natural gas and 11 percent of its crude oil imports. With an estimated 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of oil yet to be discovered in the Arctic Circle, the EU’s imports from Norway and other Arctic states may increase.

The Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI), however, shows that despite the fact that Norway pursues some of the best environmental policies in Europe and the world, issues of concern remain, particularly when it comes to the country’s climate actions.

As a major oil and gas producer, Norway is directly and indirectly contributing to global carbon dioxide emissions. To a large extent, however, Oslo is evading domestic obligations to meet climate goals by offsetting global emissions through purchased international carbon dioxide quotas. 

“The country has also been criticized for buying itself out of burdensome domestic environmental obligations by purchasing international CO2 quotas instead of reducing emissions,” write the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s experts in the forthcoming SGI report on Norway. Nations that meet their energy demands with oil and gas resources from the Arctic such as the EU will need to evaluate the environmental consequences of those policies.

The EU’s power as a politico-economic union makes its participation in the Arctic essential. An integrated approach such as the one put forward by the Union’s new policy for the polar region is thus a step in the right direction. However, by omitting the need for reducing the use of higher carbon emitting resources, it fosters potentially unsustainable development. It thereby hides the fact that communities in the Arctic and beyond are facing hard choices in balancing nations’ self-interest and global wellbeing.

Antonia Sohns is a Water and Energy Analyst at the World Bank. She writes this article in her personal capacity.

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