Opening Address by H.E. Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson,
Minister for Foreign Affairs
at American-Icelandic Chamber of Commerce's seminar "Doing Business in the Arctic"
Embassy of Iceland, Washington, 23 May 2019
Ambassador Geir H. Haarde,
Consul General and Trade Commissioner for North America Hlynur Guðjónsson,
Conference Chair and Chairman of the Board of the Icelandic American Chamber of Commerce Jón Sigurðsson,
Director of the Arctic Economic Council Anu Fredrikson,
Director of the Polar Institute of the Wilson Center Mike Sfraga and excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to be with you here today to discuss these two interesting topics - the Arctic and Doing business. And what better environment to do that - surrounded by these beautiful and inspirational pieces of art that Rax has produced.
His work provides us with a necessary perspective and a feeling of what is at stake – also from new points of view. It shows us a new reality and there is an energy about them - they are all incredibly beautiful, some of them are even a little scary, exciting, and some show us that, sometimes, there is more than meets the eye.
This is exactly what we need when we debate opportunities in the Arctic. Opportunities that, like Rax’s pieces, would not be on the table if it were not for the often-times scary developments taking place in the Arctic due to climate change and melting sea ice.
Increased co-operation between the Arctic states is gradually leading to new business opportunities and economic activities. This co-operation is stimulating research and development in various fields that helps us to utilise the resources of the Arctic in a sustainable way.
Solid infrastructure, including roads, ports and airports, is key. This is something that Icelandic companies and industries are aware of, as improved connections have contributed to increased growth in our country. Better connections in the region will increase the service level for both businesses and the people of the Arctic.
And we need creativity - an active interplay between the public and private sector, and innovation to tackle the challenges ahead and ensure resilience and prosperity in the region. An example of that are fibre optic cables that allow us to connect within the region and are of significant importance.
This is also why I have emphasized the importance of developing new Arctic partnerships and networks, mirrored for instance in our strong emphasis on enhancing the collaboration between the Arctic Economic Council, where Mr. Heidar Gudjonsson is now Chairman, and the Arctic Council. I will come back to this later.
Moreover, we will make the most of the fact that Iceland will also be chairing the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, an extremely important actor when debating security and search and rescue in an increasingly open and busy Arctic waters.
Open and busy Arctic waters – who would have believed that this would be our reality in 2019. In Iceland we have seen a dramatic increase in port calls by cruise liners bringing ever growing numbers of international tourists to enjoy the Arctic.
Recently we witnessed, off the coast of Norway, the possible challenges such ships can pose in terms of search and rescue in the Arctic, where we often have limited access to resources.
Now, a little perspective.
The temperatures in the Arctic are rising at more than twice the average global rate and Arctic warming trends are expected to continue towards the mid-century.
According to scientists, trends after 2050 will depend on today’s mitigating actions. As a fishing nation, Icelanders and Icelandic fisheries companies feel the effects of these developments with changes in the migration and availability of fish stocks in our waters.
Furthermore, the melting of sea ice and ocean acidification put the entire marine ecosystems at risk. Adaptation to these changes will be challenging for most communities in the North in the years and decades to come.
This makes multilateral and inter-sectoral cooperation vital, not only for the future of the Arctic but also in the global interest.
And that is also a new reality. The effects of changing climate in the Arctic reach far beyond the Arctic region. Repercussions will be felt around the world, for example through rising sea levels.
Since this is a global challenge, it calls for a global response in reducing emissions worldwide. And we need private engagement to be able to develop the best solutions for replacing fossil fuel with renewable energy resources.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In my view, the ultimate goal for the future of the Arctic must be economic prosperity and social well-being in a healthy environment. For all these reasons Arctic affairs are, and will remain, a top priority in Iceland’s foreign policy.
We have emphasized the importance of striking the right balance between environmental protection, economic growth and social development.
This means adapting to the negative environmental impact but also identifying and making responsible use of the possibilities that these changes may entail.
And the right of the inhabitants of the Arctic to build prosperous yet sustainable communities must be respected.
The four million people living and working in the Arctic need to see economic development for future generations - creating prosperity while safeguarding what is the largest pristine wilderness in the world.
This is important, not least to the indigenous peoples that inhabit the region and who possess both culture and knowledge of great value. And this is why sustainable development will be the guiding principle during our chairmanship of the Arctic Council.
The overarching theme of the Icelandic Chairmanship is Together towards a Sustainable Arctic and we will continue to emphasise the importance of addressing equally and linking together each of the three pillars of sustainability; the environment, society and the economy.
In our program we have highlighted four main priority areas:
First, and not entirely surprisingly, the Arctic marine environment. Our second priority concerns climate and green energy solutions. Our third main priority will be to support Arctic societies in building prosperous and sustainable communities. And finally, Iceland will continue to work for a stronger Arctic Council. These priorities are naturally inter-related and support each other.
The Oceans will figure at the heart of our program. We know that the largest part of the Arctic region is covered by ocean, and the welfare of a large part of the population in the Arctic is based on the sustainable use of marine resources. Iceland will, therefore, focus on continuing and further developing ocean-related projects already under way.
We are also particularly interested in strengthening Arctic Council co-operation on mitigating plastic pollution in the oceans, which is why we are planning an international scientific conference on the topic in Reykjavík Iceland in April 2020.
Moreover, Iceland also wants to introduce a new project focusing on innovation and efficient use of marine biological resources, or the so-called Blue Bio-Economy.
Experience has shown that through innovation and biotechnological solutions, it is possible to increase significantly the utilization level of biomass taken out of the ocean.
Through successful application of the method it provides for positive outcomes for the environment, it strengthens the economy and has positive effect in the communities. I will go into this in more detail in a second.
Our second priority concerns climate and green energy solutions. We will follow up on Finland’s initiative and continue to focus on meteorological co-operation.
In that respect, I would like to mention explicitly a project on mapping glaciers and providing more accurate information on the dramatic glacial reduction being witnessed in my part of the world.
The impending shift in energy sources from fossil fuels to renewable energy will continue to be important, both for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and for improving air quality in Arctic communities. Iceland aims for further work to be carried out, continuing to seek practical green energy solutions, focusing specifically on small communities in the Arctic.
Our third main priority will be to support Arctic societies in building prosperous and sustainable communities. The Arctic Council already has a strong record of promoting sustainable development and growth in the region, but in the coming decades, adapting to continuous warming of the Arctic will be a major challenge for many of the small Arctic communities, not least the indigenous people.
We, therefore, wish to continue co-operation on matters like gender equality, connectivity, adaptation and resilience as well as on economic development. Here, the key is to put education, knowledge sharing and innovation at the forefront.
And speaking of knowledge-sharing, ladies and gentlemen,
Iceland’s economy has been diversified in the last couple of decades, but previously the strategic sector of it was the sustainable utilization of our fisheries resources. Iceland is blessed with extremely productive fishing grounds. With strong support from many international partners, we saw the United Nations Convention on the Law of Seas come into being. This laid down the foundation for our strong fisheries management system.
We have invested heavily in maritime research and science in Iceland and we benefit from the fact that there is absolute, cross-societal support for basing our fisheries management on the best available scientific advice. In doing so we have been able to keep our fisheries resources in good shape, for the benefit of the whole of Icelandic society and economy, and we have experience to share when it comes to striking the right balance between protection and sustainable harvesting.
The Icelandic approach has also meant that for a long time our fishing industry has lived, and prospered, in knowing that their only possibility to grow is through better use of the biomass they are harvesting. In fact, innovation has enabled them to multiply the market value of their products.
In the last couple of decades, we have seen incredible increase in the levels of utilization of catches. Some fishing companies have even reached 100% utilisation, meaning that they have virtually no biomass waste from their production and, at least equally importantly, this has led to dramatic increase in their total product value.
This experience has inspired Iceland to propose to the Arctic Council a project on the Blue Bioeconomy. We not only believe, but know, that by applying the sustainable methodology of the Blue Bioeconomy it is possible to dramatically increase the quality and market value of the products of the fishing industry in many of the Arctic communities. In fact, applying biotechnology and innovation is, in my opinion, the perfect example on how innovation can be key for Arctic communities to thrive in a sustainable manner.
And fourthly, Iceland will continue to work for a stronger Arctic Council and give due attention to the inner workings of the Arctic Council by maintaining the close consultations between Member States and the Permanent Participants. However, as many of the impacts that are affecting the Arctic originate outside the Arctic, we must also strengthen the co-operation with and engagement of other stakeholders in the Arctic.
Iceland will continue to use innovative ways to enhance the engagement with Arctic Council observers in a mutually beneficial manner. A key for success in that respect is that observers can contribute to the projects of the Arctic Council in a meaningful way.
Another very important part of our strategy in this regard, which is the one I alluded to earlier, is the formation of new partnerships with a wide variety of stakeholders.
Governments, businesses, communities and individual Arctic residents, everyone has a role to play in this major challenge.
Important actors have already teamed up with us. The Arctic Economic Council will celebrate its five years anniversary during Iceland’s Chairmanship, and we plan to further enhance the collaboration between the two Councils. To this end we used the opportunity in Rovaniemi earlier this month to sign a Memorandum of Understanding between the two Councils.
The aim of the MoU is to provide a framework for the co-operation and facilitate the achievement of our shared goals. That is to say - safeguarding the well-being, safety and prosperity of all Arctic inhabitants, as well as creating vibrant, sustainable regional economies. The two councils intend to continue co-operation in the field of connectivity, and
I am happy to see that they also intend to focus on the Blue Bioeconomy, maritime safety and capacity building amongst other areas. The work will be co-ordinated through regular exchange of information, participation in each other’s projects and joint activities where appropriate.
In this light, I am pleased to note that the Arctic Economic Council and the Senior Arctic Officials are planning to convene a joint meeting this fall on the occasion of the five years anniversary of the Council and to further advance their co-operation.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As a politician I have been a devoted proponent of a strong private sector and of the Government working with the private sector whenever possible. I truly believe that by providing healthy conditions for private undertakings we can unleash hidden powers within our societies that will benefit us all.
I trust that you can all see this well reflected in the Icelandic chairmanship priorities of the Arctic Council for the next two years. But it is also reflected in the fact that this is the first Arctic engagement that I take on after taking over the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council - on Doing Business in the Arctic and in this excellent co-operation with the Icelandic American Chamber of Commerce and other collaborators.
Our conference chair Jon Sigurdsson was, actually, once upon a time the Icelandic Trade Commissioner to North America but later moved on to become the CEO of one of Iceland’s most successful Icelandic innovation companies, Össur. This is a private sector engagement that I am proud to support.
In conclusion, I would like to thank all the organisers of today’s event and particularly all the Embassy staff that have worked around the clock in making sure that everything is working as it should.
And last but not least thank you all for turning up and spending a morning with us devoted to Doing Business in the Arctic.
Thank you all.