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Make it or break it. An Interview with Ambassador Aleksi Härkönen, SAO Chair

25 January 2019
The Arctic Council will be hosting "Black carbon in the Arctic and snow-covered regions – a climate forcer and an air pollutant" at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, Monday 10 December, 18:30 – 20:00.

Q: Beginning of 2018 you looked into your crystal ball and foresaw a year “both daunting and full of opportunity”. Looking back now, how did 2018 turn out to be?

2018 was the only full year of the Finnish Arctic Council Chairmanship. So, we either had to make it – or to break it. I would say that we made the Chairmanship proceed quite successfully. We can look back at events such as the Arctic Environment Ministers’ Meeting, the UArctic Congress and of course the Arctic Biodiversity Congress. Just to mention a few. One of our priority areas I would like to emphasize here is meteorological cooperation, which I dare call a breakthrough already now. In March 2018, we brought together both the Arctic Council and meteorological community in Levi, one of our ski resorts in Northern Finland. It was quite a week with the Senior Arctic Officials’ meeting and an Arctic Meteorological summit, which we hosted together with the World Meteorological Organization, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, and other national institutes.

However, it was not our ambition to just hold one event after the other, but to make progress in all four priority areas of our Chairmanship: meteorological cooperation, connectivity, education, and environmental protection. Everybody of course knows that the list of urgent issues is long and continues. We therefore tried to observe the changes happening in the Arctic, in an effort to tackle all the important issues. We were taking a long-term look into the future to identify what can be done and should be done – exploring common solutions, as our slogan reads. And common solutions will be found, but it of course takes longer than the duration of a two-year Chairmanship.

Q: The Finnish Arctic Council Chairmanship is heading towards the finishing line of its term. Many eyes are now fixed on the Ministerial meeting in the beginning of May, when Iceland will resume the Chairmanship. Are there any activities we should pay attention to in the meantime?

We have a full schedule for this spring, which is mostly concentrating on the preparations for the Ministerial meeting. I would like to mention that we really hope that the foreign ministers of the Arctic States will decide to attend this Ministerial meeting. Just as they did – all of them – at the Fairbanks Ministerial two years ago. That would show the necessary leadership of the Arctic countries that we so much need. What else will happen before the Ministerial? We will hold two Senior Arctic Officials meetings. One in Ruka, another ski resort in Northern Finland, and the second in Espoo, close to Helsinki.

Q: One eagerly anticipated deliverable to the Ministerial meeting is the first Arctic Council long-term strategic plan. Can you share some insights on its progress?

Frankly, at one point I was not quite sure if we would get the strategic plan ready before the Ministerial meeting. However, now I am much more optimistic. We have made an effort to gather all the views – both from the Arctic States and the Permanent Participants. Now it just needs finalizing. This of course means that the strategic plan to some extent will guide future Chairmanship programs. The next Chairmanship, the Icelandic, will thus have plenty to do to implement it.

Q: What time span will the strategic plan cover?

The time span is shorter now than it initially was set out to be – which, I think, is more realistic. However, it is still work in progress and I would like to keep my answer this vague. There might still be different opinions, and nothing is final before a consensus has been reached.

Q: On a personal note: What are you looking forward to in 2019 and what – if anything – are you daunting?

I am looking forward to a successful conclusion of this year, and of course I hope that we will enable a smooth transition to the Icelandic Chairmanship. I don’t know if this is personal or professional. Maybe this is more professional. Personally, I am looking forward to leaving the Chairmanship with happy memories and experiences. This has been diplomacy at its best, but it has also been an excursion into an area – the Arctic and its inhabitants – which I did not have that much knowledge on beforehand.

And Aleksi wouldn’t miss the opportunity to give a word of thanks…

I would like to say that if we will conclude this Chairmanship successfully, it is because we have had a very good cooperation within Finland, with the Sami representatives, the cities, the Arctic Economic Council, and other stakeholders. We also have had a very good cooperation with our international partners and this definitely includes the Arctic Council Secretariat.