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A look ahead: The Arctic Council in 2018

25 January 2018
The year ahead of us is both daunting and full of opportunity, says SAO Chair Aleksi Härkönen.

When you pick up your crystal ball, what do you see in the year ahead?

The year ahead of us is both daunting and full of opportunity. There are two meetings in the fall that will bring together Ministers to discuss key elements of Arctic cooperation. The first will bring together the environment Ministers of the Arctic States (11-12 October, Rovaniemi) to discuss and make progress on environmental protection in the Arctic. The second will be an Arctic Science Ministerial meeting to be organized by the European Union, together with Germany and Finland (25-26 October, Berlin). Such a meeting of science ministers is very timely this year following the signature of the new Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation at the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in 2017. There’s a great deal of momentum behind our efforts to increase science cooperation, which is so critical to improving our understanding of the rapid changes underway in the region.

We are also preparing multiple gatherings that will tackle specific issues of concern in the Arctic. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) will organize an Arctic Meteorology Week in Levi, Finnish Lapland, side-by-side with an upcoming SAO meeting in March. This will provide an opportunity to take a serious look at the use of meteorological and oceanographic knowledge in the Arctic Council and its Working Groups. The need is obvious. In addition, we will organize a conference (22 February, with the involvement of the International Maritime Organization) on the harmonized implementation of the Polar Code in the Arctic. The entry into force of the Polar Code is a major recent achievement in Arctic stewardship.

Also coming up very soon is the third exercise of the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic (MOSPA agreement). Taking place in Oulu, Finland on 6-8 March, the exercise scenario is based on an escalation of an oil spill incident from the regional to the international level. It’s an important step in the development of cooperation under this agreement, one of the three binding agreements negotiated under the auspices of the Council. We are happy that the Arctic Coast Guard Forum will meet in Oulu during the same week, because the contribution of the Arctic States’ Coast Guards is essential for the successful implementation of the MOSPA agreement.

We are planning two conferences focused on biodiversity and resilience, respectively. First you’ll see the Arctic Resilience Forum (10-11 September) in Rovaniemi, followed by the Arctic Biodiversity Congress on 9-11 October. The Arctic Biodiversity Congress will overlap with the meeting of environment Ministers. It will include outreach activities, as well as the release of a new report from Working Group CAFF (Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna) – the State of the Arctic Freshwater Biodiversity Report – that will synthesize the state of knowledge about biodiversity in Arctic freshwater ecosystems.

There are several other important events on the calendar as well, including two meetings of Senior Arctic Officials in March and October. The March meeting will address two priority areas, meteorological cooperation and connectivity in the Arctic.

I expect these events to help identify key issues in their respective areas, and to help provide solutions. The Arctic Council has the convening power to gather many of the most experienced subject-matter experts to discuss any Arctic issue face-to-face, and that is often the best way to make concrete progress.

It’s also important to mention that the Senior Arctic Officials and Permanent Participants are already beginning to work as a group on a long-term strategic plan for the Arctic Council. The first major steps in this direction were taken at a workshop hosted by our Canadian colleagues at the Canada House in London at the end of January, where we had a creative yet realistic discussion guiding our work that will be finalized next year.

We’re also looking at key ways to engage our Observers more effectively. We were quite pleased with the way the Observers joined in our discussion on pollution prevention at the latest SAO meeting last October. In those discussions, it was plain to see how crucial it is that Observers participate in our work to reduce emissions of black carbon in ways that will benefit Arctic environment, Arctic peoples, and Arctic economic activity. Another example is the Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative. CAFF is planning a workshop in China to discuss migratory bird conservation along the important East Asian-Australasian flyway. But these are only a few examples of how we’re engaging our Observers.

Beyond all of this, we are all closely following the Council’s “bread and butter” work – that is, the activities of our Working Groups and Task Forces.

Our Working Group ACAP (Arctic Contaminants Action Program) is undertaking a suite of projects to work towards reduced emissions of black carbon, mercury, greenhouse gases, ozone-depleting substances, and other dangerous pollutants into the Arctic environment. This ties into the Council’s other important work on black carbon reduction, which is an area of increasingly productive collaboration.

Working Group AMAP (Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme) will be doing the important work of contributing to IPCC special reports, as well as delivering new research on ocean acidification and conducting outreach on the crucial developments in climate science that are covered in its 2017 SWIPA report (Snow, Water, Ice, and Permafrost in the Arctic). AMAP is also continuing with its work on adaptation, covered in its AACA project (Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic).

In addition to its major role in the upcoming oil spill exercise I’ve mentioned, Working Group EPPR (Emergency Prevention, Preparedness, and Response) is working to help small communities prepare for oil spill (or other emergency) incidents. EPPR is developing a series of short videos to communicate the results of a recent survey on this issue, and to increase awareness in small communities.

Shipping is, of course, an important component of the landscape of activity in the Arctic, and Working Group PAME (Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment) is working on two important shipping-related initiatives this year. The Arctic Ship Traffic Data project, which we expect to be operationalized this year, will allow the Arctic Council to be at the forefront of monitoring trends and assessing any changes related to Arctic shipping. It’s an important tool that will support our work to enhance Arctic marine safety and support protection of Arctic people and the environment.

Another breakthrough will be the launch of the Arctic Shipping Best Practices Information Forum. Among other objectives, the Forum aims to raise awareness of the provisions of the IMO’s Polar Code amongst all those involved in or potentially affected by Arctic marine operations and to facilitate information exchange between the Forum’s members.

SDWG (the Sustainable Development Working Group), which strives to be a leading force for sustainable development in the Arctic, has many initiatives underway, but I’d like to highlight two. First, the Arctic environmental impact assessment (EIA) project plans to deliver Arctic-specific EIA recommendations that can be applied in the vulnerable and changing Arctic environment, and that will take into account the indigenous peoples and other inhabitants who live there. Also from SDWG, I’m excited about a teacher education project focused on early childhood and basic education, and addressing pedagogy, culturally relevant teaching, and community-sensitive teaching, among other issues.

Finally, our two Task Forces, the first of which looks at Arctic marine cooperation and the second of which works toward improved connectivity in the Arctic, are making progress on the reports or recommendations that they will deliver at the next Arctic Council Ministerial meeting, taking place in May 2019 in Rovaniemi.

The Arctic Council remains true to its characterization as the leading forum for Arctic cooperation, and it is good that it is so. Still, we should recognize that progress is also being made elsewhere, and there are recent examples that I would like to mention. The first of these is the successful conclusion, late in 2017, of negotiations on an agreement banning commercial fishing in the Arctic High Seas. Several Arctic Council Observers were involved in this important step of Arctic stewardship. Second, I would point to last year’s joint proposal from the Russian Federation and the United States to the IMO on the establishment of two-way routes and precautionary areas for vessels navigating through the Bering Sea and the Bering Strait. Third, I would point to the Arctic Economic Council, which is developing its activities. It is an important partner to the Arctic Council in many areas.