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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

UNEP Governing Council in Nairobi

UNEP Governing Council Nairobi, 3 - 7 February 2003

Statement of the Chair of Senior Arctic Officials, Ambassador Gunnar Pálsson


I have asked for the floor from the seat of Iceland, but in my capacity as Chair of Senior Arctic Officials. Therefore, let me start out by thanking the Executive Director for including Arctic issues in his report on the state of the global environment (22/2). This report, as well as its attached draft decision on sustainable development of the Arctic, highlights the important links that exist between the UNEP and the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council is primarily a regional partnership for sustainable development, mandated to address all three of its main pillars; the environmental, social and economic. The scientific work and policy guidance of the Arctic Council is carried out in several expert working groups focussing on such issues as monitoring, assessing and preventing pollution in the Arctic, climate change, biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, in addition to emergency preparedness and prevention. At the same time, the Arctic Council is giving greater focus and direction to its work on sustainable development. It is increasingly concerned about the living conditions of Arctic residents and has recently launched a comprehensive study, the Arctic Human Development Report, of that subject.

The Arctic Council is a distinctive form of co-operation between governments and indigenous peoples in the Arctic region. Several organizations representing indigenous peoples are recognized as Permanent Participants and contribute to the Council}s work with active participation and full consultation, thus enabling the Council to take full account of traditional knowledge. Non-Arctic states, inter-governmental and inter-parliamentary organizations, as well as non-governmental organizations, are involved in the Arctic Council as observers http://www.arctic-council.org/en/main/infopage/9/. Among them, we are privileged to have the United Nations Environment Program participating regularly in Arctic Council meetings, mainly through its Global and Regional Integrated Database at Arendal in Norway.

With your permission, I would like to mention activities that are of particular relevance to current work of the UNEP, specifically the work of the Arctic Council on mercury. Before doing so, let me refer briefly to a couple of other projects:

Strategic Plan for the protection of the Arctic marine environment: Last October, the Arctic Council decided to develop a strategic plan for the protection of the Arctic marine environment. One of its working groups, responsible for the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), has been mandated to develop this plan over the next two years, led by two of the member countries, Iceland and Canada.

Partner Programme in Regional Seas: PAME also participates as a Partner Programme in the annual meetings of UNEP Regional Seas.

GEF-Russian-NPA-Arctic: Furthermore, the same working group contributes to both the regional and national implementation of the UNEP/Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA) through further implementation, development and updating of the Arctic Council Regional Programme of Action on the same issues. The implementation and further elaboration of the Russian Federation}s National Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment is an important component of the implementation of the regional action program.

Climate change: I should point out, following the presentation of the IPCC Chair earlier in this session, that the Arctic Council is currently also working on an Arctic Climate Impact Assessment to be completed next year.

Mercury: Over the last 10 years the Arctic Council's Monitoring and Assessment Program has conducted two major assessments of pollution in the Arctic. The research has documented sources, levels, trends and effects of a wide range of contaminants including heavy metals like mercury and many others. One of the findings shows rising trends of mercury contamination in some regions of the Arctic.

Most of the contaminants within the Arctic are derived from sources outside the region, in particular the industrialized areas of Europe and North America. It appears that the sources of Arctic contaminants are increasingly also found as far afield as southeast Asia. The source pattern is changing as mercury emissions in Europe and North America have decreased, while emissions from Asia appear to be increasing. This occurs in the environment as a result of both natural and anthropogenic emissions. The main anthropogenic sources are associated with the burning of fossil fuels, mainly coal, for heat and energy. Mercury has a long-residence time in the atmosphere, allowing it to be transported to the Arctic from sources throughout the northern hemisphere.

Once in the Arctic, mercury can be taken up in the lipid rich food chains of the region, in particular the marine food chain and give cause for concern as regards certain species, including seals, polar bears and some birds. Mercury is toxic to biota and can cause neurodevelopmental effects in humans. Parts of the human population, including the Inuit of northeast Greenland and Canada, are exposed through their traditional diets to levels that go beyond benchmarks of tolerable weekly intakes established by the WHO and many nations.

In brief, the main sources of mercury contamination in the Arctic are outside the region and its effects are often heightened due to the unique environmental conditions that prevail in the region itself. The same applies to many other contaminants, including POP's. Therefore, contamination in the Arctic needs to be seen in a global context and addressed as such. I am pleased to see this issue recognized in those terms in the draft decision I referred to at the outset.

Allow me, finally, in my capacity as Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials, to say how much I appreciate the attention being given by the UNEP to the issue of mercury in the environment.

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