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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

The Arctic is more than environment

Sixth Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region


Statement by Ambassador Gunnar Pálsson
Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials

Nuuk
3 - 6 September 2004




I convey to you the greetings of the Chairman of the Arctic Council, Foreign Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson, who unfortunately could not be here today.

It is a great pleasure to be invited to Greenland. Few countries in the Arctic can rival the beauty and richness of wildlife and landscape of Greenland, in addition to its age-honoured culture. Therefore, the town of Nuuk would seem to be an ideal setting for a conference of Arctic Parliamentarians.

My presentation today will essentially be a progress report of the Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. By way of background, let me first describe some features of the Council that may shed light on the direction we have taken during our term of Chairmanship.

The Arctic is more than environment

One of the distinctive features of the Arctic Council is its geographic scope. We are a circumpolar forum involving both governments and indigenous peoples? organizations. Different actors may be concerned with ?slices? of this geographic circle. The Barents Euro-Arctic Council covers one part and Canada, through its Northern policy, another, to mention two examples. There is also extensive pan-Arctic cooperation at levels other than the executive level, among parliamentarians, regional and municipal authorities, and the academic and research communities. The Arctic Council affords us a means to bring together most of those actors in a coherent network, directly or indirectly, through membership or observership.

The Arctic Council is a young forum, created in 1996 and built on the Rovaniemi-process. This explains why its main focus at the outset was on environmental protection. Inhabitants of the North live in a sensitive, even vulnerable, natural environment. Understandably, a great deal of effort has therefore been devoted to conserving its flora and fauna. The Arctic Council is also engaged in monitoring and assessing pollution in the Arctic - and, on the basis of such assessments, taking action to eliminate the identified sources of pollution, especially in Russia.

The environment remains a pivotal part of the work of the Arctic Council. Our environmental reports, including those of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) and the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group, showcase some of the best scientific work done in the Arctic.

Those reports demonstrate that the Arctic remains, comparatively speaking, a clean environment. But pollution studies carried out by the Arctic Council suggest certain trends that give cause for concern in some Arctic areas. Moreover, by studying the effects of phenomena like long-range transboundary pollution in the Arctic region we are able to predict the consequences such pollution may have elsewhere in the world. For instance, how will the increased accumulation of mercury in the food-web affect human health? Due to the special circumstances that prevail in the Arctic, the region may hold the key to answering such questions.

This reminds us of the close link that exists between the natural environment we live in and our general well-being. Human activity obviously impacts the environment. But changes in the environment also affect people and their conditions of life. This perspective of interaction between society and environment is what is commonly referred to as sustainable development - to borrow from the jargon of the trade.

Looking to the future, there can be little doubt that environmental issues will remain at the core of the work of the Arctic Council. But we must not forget that the Arctic is more than environment. It is home to almost four million people, including more than thirty different indigenous peoples. As it happens, many of the processes documented in the Arctic Council?s environmental reports have begun to work their effects through the lives and livelihoods of the people of the region.

Pressures are building in areas of the Arctic as a result of long range pollution and economic activity, including shipping and the hydrocarbon industry, issues that have been studied by our working groups on Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) and on the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME).

A balanced notion of sustainable development

Whether we choose to look upon the Arctic in terms of peril and risk or promise and opportunity, there can be little doubt that the time has come to devote more attention to the social, economic and cultural life of the region. We need to address both sides of the equation, society and nature, to arrive at a balanced notion of sustainable development. This has been the unifying theme of the Icelandic Chairmanship.

We have focused on three main areas:

In the first place, there is the Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR), inspired by the work of Arctic Parliamentarians and launched under Iceland?s lead at the Ministerial meeting in Inari. This will be a first attempt to provide an extensive overview of human conditions in the Arctic as a whole. As such, the report should help give sustainable development in the region a human face and provide a more solid ground for the work of the Sustainable Development Working Group.

The report is well under way and we hope to have it completed by the time of the Ministerial meeting in Iceland on 24 November 2004.

Around 200 people, broadly representing the circumpolar region, have contributed to the report. Member states, Permanent Participants and eight observers, including the Standing Committee of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region, nominated representatives to a special Report Steering Committee (RSC), which then identified writers for the different chapters of the report, all experts in their respective fields. In addition, a special Secretariat was established at the Stefánsson Arctic Institute in Iceland, to carry out the necessary coordination of the work.

The mechanism applied to the Arctic Human Development Report is a good example of the inherent flexibility of Arctic Council working arrangements. As always, when people with a wide variety of backgrounds come together, we cannot expect either uniformity, let alone government authentification, of the views they express. Even so, we are hopeful that member states will be able to draw on the report in responding to the particular social and economic challenges of the Arctic region in the future.

As a second main objective, the Chairmanship has sought to highlight the use of information and telecommunication technology (ICT) in the Arctic. Again, we owe a dept of gratitude to parliamentarians, for prodding us into action in this area at the 5th Arctic Parliamentarians? conference in Tromsö, two years ago. Here, our overall aim has been to focus on how we can better use ICT to improve the living conditions of the people in the Arctic.

In October 2003, an international ICT-conference devoted to distance education and telemedicine in the Arctic, was organized in the town of Akureyri. As a result of the conference, several promising projects and project proposals are being pursued through an Arctic Council ICT network (ICTN), recently established at the Selfoss-meeting of Senior Arctic Officials. Among those contributions is an excellent project proposal of the Standing Committee, for the so-called Target Region Arctic IC Enquiry (TRAICE), a project we hope to present as part of an ICT package to Ministers in November.

The third main area of emphasis has been to strengthen cooperation on Arctic research, seen as a means for smaller communities in the Arctic in particular to gain control of their often harsh external conditions.

To this end, the annual Arctic Science Summit Week was hosted in Reykjavík in April of this year. The event brought together a large part of the Arctic science community. During one of their sessions, scientists devoted special attention to the issue of adapting to climate change, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and the upcoming third International Polar Year (IPY), to be held in 2007-2008. Efforts to involve the Arctic Council as much as possible in the preparations for the IPY are key to our goal of improving transparency between governments and the science community.

The full involvement of science, research and education authorities of the Arctic Council member states is a prerquisite for enhanced cooperation in those fields. Therefore, the Chairmanship also organized the first meeting of education and science Ministers of the Arctic Council member states in June 2004. Among other things, the Ministers issued a declaration reflecting several priority areas and decisions to further explore possibilities for increased cooperation in the field of education and science in the Arctic.

During the nearly two years that Iceland has carried the flame for the Arctic Council, those three, human development, ICT and research, have been the basic pillars of the Icelandic Chairmanship program.

But it would be entirely wrong to assume that Iceland has carried the burdens alone. We are building on the solid foundations of our predecessors, including the Finnish Chairmanship. As always, we rely on the dynamic work of our working groups. We have availed ourselves liberally of the brain trust provided by partners like the Standing Committee and the Northern Forum. Last, but not least, any program of the Charimanship of the Arctic Council can only succeed with the active support and participation of the Arctic Council members.

Attending to ongoing concerns

Continuity is an asset we prize in the Arctic Council. Allow me, therefore, to mention four ongoing Arctic Council concerns that have been particularly prominent since the Inari Ministerial.

One of the more intractable issues the Council has been called upon to deal with is the financing of circumpolar projects. The projects of the Council are financed on a voluntary basis, as the Council does not have a budget of its own. While the current system has worked quite well, we are looking at ways of making that system more efficient, rather than replacing or fundamentally altering the system itself. To this end, the Chairmanship is working, in regular consultation with the Arctic Council members and in close cooperation with the Nordic Environment Finance Corporation (NEFCO), to develop a concept for a possible Arctic Council Project Support Fund. Time will show whether circumstances are ripe for taking steps towards the establishment of such a fund later this year.

Another important issue is the development of a strategic plan for the protection of the Arctic marine environment, launched by Ministers in 2002. The plan relates to all key activities affecting Arctic marine ecosystems, acknowledging that environmental, economic and socio-cultural changes in the Arctic today are primarily driven by two key factors: climate change and growing economic activity. We expect the strategic plan, led by Canada and Iceland, to be one of the major deliverables to Ministers in November.

The one Arctic Council project attracting the greatest attention is without doubt the so-called Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), the first comprehensive, regionally-based study of climate change to be published since the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in 1992. The findings of the study will be presented and discussed at major ACIA Symposium in Reykjavík in November, two weeks before its delivery to Ministers. At the Ministerial itself, we also expect the members of the Council to discuss possible actions to be taken in response to Arctic climate change.

Beyond the intrinsic value of the ACIA to the people of the Arctic and sub-Arctic region, the ACIA provides a good reason for the international community to pay close attention to the Arctic. There is growing recognition that climate change in the Arctic may hold the key to what the future has in store for the rest of the globe.

There can be little doubt that the ACIA will put the spotlight on the Arctic in a way that has not happened before. It is up to us, governments and parliaments, to now use that opportunity to educate people in the region and world at large about the Arctic and the challenges facing the region.

In this connection, let me refer to a last area we must continue to invest our time in, outreach and cooperation with international partners. As we study the Arctic, we are appreciating more and more the complex interlinkages that exist between the Arctic and the rest of the world from the point of view of biology and ecology. To a certain extent, the Arctic has always been globalized - long before the age of globalization. This is why it is hard to separate the Arctic environment agenda from the global environment agenda. We therefore need to engage major international actors, including the United Nations, its specialized agencies and the European Union.

Working with Arctic Parliamentarians

In this endeavour, as in so many other areas, the Arctic Council must continue to work with our democratically elected public representatives. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Arctic Parliamentary Conference and the Standing Committee for their extensive contribution and support to the work of the both Icelandic Chairmanship and the Arctic Council.

As the Arctic Council has come of age, the Arctic region has for the first time acquired a distinct voice in the international community. The parliamentarians of the Arctic Council member states have been an important part of the effort to give the Arctic that voice. Therefore, I am honoured and grateful for having been given the opportunity to report on the progress of the work of the Arctic Council at this important conference here today.


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