Eyes on Reykjavik – Ministerial meeting at the Arctic Council | Polarjournal
The ministers of the Arctic Council countries will meet in the world-famous HARPA building at Reykjavik harbour to discuss and, if necessary, decide on the recommendations drawn up in advance by the working groups. Image: Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Sigurjón Ragnar

The challenges facing the Arctic and its inhabitants are enormous. This is because climate change not only affects the ecological aspects, but also social, economic and also security policy areas. In the run-up to the meeting, some of the high-ranking diplomats let it be known that these problems would now be tackled, especially the effects of climate change. Accordingly, the expectations of the various stakeholders at this year’s ministerial meeting in Reykjavik are high.

Environmental organisations and indigenous peoples’ associations in particular hope that the ministers will make binding commitments to protect the Arctic and its inhabitants at this year’s meeting. The chances of this were thought ot be better than they had been two years ago when the then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo torpedoed a final declaration of the Council and refused to sign it. But the demands of the NGOs are quite high. The most prominent example is the call by the Clean Arctic Alliance, a coalition of 22 non-profit organizations, for a complete ban on heavy fuel oil throughout the Arctic. “This week’s Arctic Council Ministerial provides a unique opportunity for foreign ministers to demonstrate global leadership by committing to immediate reductions in black carbon emissions from shipping and rapid, Arctic-wide elimination of heavy fuel oil,” said Dr. Sian Prior, senior advisor to the Alliance.

Numerous studies have shown that shipping through the Arctic makes a significant contribution to black carbon emissions. These emissions can be greatly reduced by not using heavy fuel oil. But this would require a stricter ban than that proposed by the IMO to be enforced. That’s what they’re hoping the Arctic Council will do. Picture: Sebastian Moser

The coalition is not only hoping for a binding commitment, which would send a strong signal to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and thus require its “weak” proposal for a ban to be discussed again. “The Clean Arctic Alliance is also calling on Arctic foreign ministers attending the Arctic Ministerial to commit to introducing measures to reduce black carbon emissions from shipping in their own Arctic waters, along with national bans on the use and carriage of HFO in Arctic waters,” Dr Prior continues. Norway has already taken the first steps in this direction by banning heavy fuel oil in the entire area around Svalbard. With the commitments of the other Arctic nations, they are much faster and more effective than the IMO, Prior says. A ban and a switch to more environmentally friendly fuels would reduce emissions by around 30 percent, a substantial amount.

Special attention will be paid to the first meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia and the USA. After all, both countries have recently come up with pithy rhetoric and pinpricks on their Arctic borders. But apparently it’s still possible to laugh with each other. Image: Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Sigurjón Ragnar

But environmental and climate issues are not the only focus at this year’s meeting. The way in which the Arctic states will cooperate with each other has also come into focus. This is mainly because reports of increased military activity in the Arctic have been making the rounds in the press in recent months. At the centre of this are once again the USA, together with its Arctic NATO partners, and Russia. Both sides, with numerous actions and statements, have fed fears that they were heading into a “Cold War 2.0.” Since at the same time Russia will take over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council for the next two years, one is curious to see what the cooperation in the Arctic Council will look like. At a meeting between the two foreign ministers Lavrov and Blinken on the sidelines of the meeting it became clear that both sides are willing to engage in a factual discussion and cooperation to address the problems in the Arctic. Russia had also stated the goals of its Chairmanship some time ago: Sustainable development and co-operation, especially with the observer states. Switzerland is also hoping for this, as the Department of Foreign Affairs (EDA) confirmed to PolarJournal. There are many points of contact between the two countries, particularly in the scientific field, and cooperation is well established, explains the EDA. This was to be further intensified during the Russian Chairmanship.

In 2017, Switzerland (represented here by Ambassador Stefan Estermann) was the last nation to be elevated by the Arctic Council to the ranks of observer states. This year, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Turkey are seeking this coveted status. Photo: Arctic Circle

Another aspect of this year’s meeting is the possible expansion of the round of observer states. Ireland, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Turkey have submitted their formal applications for membership and are hoping for a commitment. Switzerland, which was the last country to be included in the circle, had closer contact with some of the countries in the run-up “to get advice on how to campaign for this status”, writes the Foreign Ministry at the request of PolarJournal. “These contacts were a good opportunity to present our interests and activities and to exchange views on various Arctic issues,” it continues. However, he said it was not surprising that observer status was of interest to an increasing number of non-Arctic nations. The rapid development of the Arctic poses new challenges for everyone. It remains to be seen whether the Arctic Council as a body will be able to meet these challenges with determination and whether the Strategic Plan and the Reykjavik Declaration are a first step in that direction.

UPDATE: A first step has been taken, as the eight council members ended up signing the Reykjavik Declaration. Among other things, they reaffirm the wish for continued peace, stability and constructive cooperation in the Arctic. They further underlined the importance of achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement and called on ALL signatories to “implement and strengthen national contributions to this end”. They further affirmed that economic activities in the Arctic should be sustainable and transparent and emphasized the transition to low-emission solutions and energy efficiency. Another step is the implementation of a strategic plan until 2030, which has been worked out over the past two years. In the 7-page document, the Arctic Council seeks, among other things, to increase its focus on and promote clean energy solutions and technologies, provide greater support for global climate change efforts, and work together to reduce greenhouse gas and black carbon emissions. The complete plan can be found at the end of the article.
The Clean Arctic Alliance said in an initial statement that while it noted the Arctic Council’s plans, it was “frustrated that the Arctic Council has not done more to prioritise reducing black carbon emissions from shipping.”

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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