Mr. President, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Excellencies, distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure to address the last plenary session of the Arctic Circle Assembly, an event that has become one of the major Arctic gatherings worldwide. In the course of time the Arctic, the High North as it is sometime referred to, is occupying more and more prominent place on the agenda of international affairs – with good reason.
Iceland sits in the front row of witnessing climate change and its consequences. We can, therefore, offer the best seats and are centrally placed to host events on the Arctic, and to engage in the discourse on developments in the region, whether it is on the political, scientific, economic or environmental levels.
The Arctic Circle Assembly is an excellent example of a successful forum for an enlightening and informative dialogue and exchange of views on the many Arctic-related issues that our societies are faced with. The quality of the sessions and the level of participation from state actors, local communities, non-governmental organisations, private sector enterprises and science alike, make this Arctic assembly quite unique in form and size.
Allow me to thank Iceland's President, for his tireless engagement, and the organisers and sponsors for their hard work and commitment. Most specifically I would like to convey my thanks to the President of France, Mr. François Hollande, for his valuable contribution to this year's Arctic Circle.
His participation has inevitably directed the focus on the upcoming Climate Change meeting (COP21) that will take place in Paris in December under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Climate change is not a far-off problem. It is happening now. While the causes are global, the effects are most rapid and visible in the Arctic. These changes are occurring at an even faster pace than anticipated: they are multifaceted and affect our societies in various ways – economically, socially, culturally, environmentally, and in terms of security.
The COP21 conference in Paris might be a “make-or-break” event with respect to tangible achievements in combatting human-induced climate change. Iceland is fully committed to contribute to a successful outcome of the Paris conference, and aims to take part in collective delivery with the European Union and Norway of 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emission by 2030.
As an Arctic Coastal State and a founding member of the Arctic Council, Iceland has great interests at stake in the Arctic, shaped strongly by its geographical position and the importance of access to natural resources and their sustainability. The eight Arctic States share a common responsibility and a mutual interest in the protection and sustainability of the Arctic. It is underlined by our commitment to the Arctic as a region of peace, stability and cooperation. The rapid pace of developments in the Arctic – driven by climate change, but also by strategic considerations and high economic and commercial interests – has contributed to this increased attention on the Arctic in recent years.
Ladies and gentlemen,
For centuries, Iceland's economic and social well-being and livelihood has been shaped by the natural riches and climatic conditions of the North. Our interests in the Arctic are manifold and it thus comes as no surprise that my Government has identified the Arctic as a key policy priority. This policy direction has been pursued in various ways.
A Committee of Ministers on Arctic Affairs, which I preside over as Prime Minister, is mapping out Iceland´s interests in the Arctic. This work is in its final stages and will be completed before the end of this year.
In fact, there is a broad consensus in Icelandic politics and society on Arctic affairs and our ambition is to maintain and foster this cohesion and continue to build on and develop the principles that underpin our Arctic policy, unanimously agreed to in the Parliament, Althingi, in 2011.
Iceland's Arctic policy encompasses twelve wide-ranging principles, including promoting and strengthening the Arctic Council as the premier forum for Arctic cooperation, and the importance of and respect for international law – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea being the prime example. The policy states clearly that Iceland will adhere to principles of sustainability and protection of the environment – which are regarded crucial when discussing the future of economic development.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As a matter of fact, it is quite remarkable how the Arctic has managed to remain a region of stability and co-operation after decades of tensions during the Cold War. We must continue to build on this and avoid the slippery slope of military build-ups and confrontation in the region – we must not fall victim to the “Scramble for the Arctic”. It is, in addition, important that we succeed in maintaining the Arctic Council as a peaceful venue in times when world politics seem more tense and less predictable than only a few years ago.
This brings me to one of our policy's main points – namely regional co-operation with other stakeholders. The Arctic Council remains the most important forum for discussions and decision-making on issues pertaining to the Arctic. Iceland will chair the body in 2019-2021, which gives us an opportunity to put a further mark on the agenda, as other countries have done during their chairmanship.
The United States, which currently holds the chairmanship, has for example placed strong emphasis on ocean and marine issues. These are also important issues for Iceland, being one of the biggest fishing nations in the Arctic. Climate change is one of the greatest threats to the ocean today. We are seeing changes in ocean acidity, and as Iceland bases its livelihood on the sea, ocean acidification may prove to be a serious threat. This is only one of the many challenges we – the people of the north – are faced with as a result of climate change.
As Arctic seas become more open and accessible, we will face the challenge of potential illegal and unregulated fisheries (IUU). Fortunately, protection and sustainable use of the ocean has received greater attention in recent years, and Iceland has a success story to share with others in that regard. Another challenge is the increased risk of pollution incidents due to increased traffic in the Arctic. In both cases, a broad-based co-operation is imperative – we need all hands on deck – and Iceland remains committed to be a leading advocate for the oceans.
Ladies and gentlemen,
One of the core principles of Iceland's Arctic Policy is related to further promoting knowledge about the Arctic. Education about the Arctic must be promoted, as well as research on the region in the broadest possible sense, such as in the fields of climate change, glacier research, marine biology, international politics and law, security, history and culture, economic and social development, gender equality, and Arctic shipping.
Iceland has contributed extensively to science in the Arctic and will continue to do so. We have for instance led two projects that focussed on the people of the Arctic and their living conditions – the comprehensive surveys of human development in the region, contained in the Arctic Human Development Reports – and the report on gender equality in the Arctic. These projects are just two examples of the tremendous research and work already being carried out on the Arctic, whether in the Arctic Council, by the academia, the business sector or NGOs.
The Arctic is sometimes painted as a vast frozen wilderness, outside the boundaries of civilization and human habitation. But it is not so. The Arctic has been inhabited for millennia, and hosts remarkable and diverse cultures. The human dimension is of prime importance in Arctic affairs.
We need to work with indigenous peoples in the Arctic in their efforts to preserve their rights and their way of life. Indigenous peoples have inhabited the Arctic for thousands of years - their proportion is estimated to be about 10 percent of total population living in arctic areas. It is important to ensure that all the inhabitants of the High North can prosper and live in harmony with nature, and utilize their resources in a sustainable way.
Yes, the Arctic can be a cold place, but you will find great warmth in its people, and a sense of pride that they call this harsh but beautiful region home. Now change is knocking on our doors. Much of it is welcome. The Arctic is faced with new economic opportunities and better connections internally and to the world outside. Other change is less welcome. Environmental change and social forces threaten livelihoods and cultures in many places.
Of course, it has been said repeatedly during these Arctic days in Reykjavik, and on numerous other occasions, but I will still repeat it: climate change is the main driver of developments in the Arctic and must be dealt with accordingly. The Arctic is a highly sensitive environment with delicate ecosystems and biodiversity. Enhanced human and economic activities in the area can increase the risk of pollution or environmental disasters, which could have colossal consequences for the environment and communities in the region, including Iceland.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
You will take from my remarks here today that the Arctic is a fascinating and complex region, where different interests can pull in different directions – confrontation or co-operation, exploitation or conservation, an unsustainable or sustainable future. Of course, the choices are not always so clear and so stark. We need good information and good judgment to chart the road to success and sustainability.
There we are fortunate, as the Arctic is largely a well governed area. Institutions and legal regimes in the region are firmly in place, and Arctic states have a good record in resolving regional issues in a cordial manner. By and large, we all share the same vision of co-habitation and co-operation.
Iceland is well placed to influence developments in the Arctic. We approach the Arctic with a sense of optimism and a willingness to act. We should have a vision of the Arctic not as a place of exploitation for short-term gain; but as a region of dynamic communities based on sustainable livelihoods and respect for the region's unique nature.
The Arctic States have recognised their leadership role in providing sustainable development and cooperation in the Arctic. At the US-initiated GLACIER conference in Alaska few weeks ago, the Arctic States reaffirmed their commitment to take action to slow the pace of warming in the Arctic. We must cooperate and turn the tide, starting in Paris in December. There we should agree on an ambitious long-term climate agreement, as so strongly urged by President François Hollande in his keynote speech on Friday.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I thank you all for coming to Iceland and attending this 3 rd Arctic Circle Assembly, and I hope you have enjoyed your stay here. We share common responsibilities when it comes to the Arctic. Let's join hands and make sure that future generations can enjoy the wonders of the Arctic, as we can today.