Sustainable solutions in a virtual setting

19 November 2020
Green energy, youth engagement and a sneak-peak into the plans for the upcoming Russian Chairmanship were some of the points on the agenda of the first ever virtual Senior Arctic Officials’ plenary meeting

For the first time, representatives of the eight Arctic States and six Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations, as well as the Arctic Council’s six Working Groups and over thirty Observers, met virtually for a Senior Arctic Officials’ (SAO) plenary meeting, gathering over 170 delegates online. The three-day meeting covered a wide spectrum of topics contributing to Iceland’s overarching Chairmanship ambition, where sustainable development is the guiding theme.

Delegates at the first virtual Senior Arctic Officials' plenary meeting

Climate and green energy solutions

Participants discussed steps to promote green energy solutions in the Arctic, including just and equitable processes. The Council’s Working and Expert Groups presented their progress on projects that provide off-grid communities with green and hybrid technologies for more reliable energy access.

The Chair of the Arctic Contaminants Action Program, Inger Johanne Wiese emphasized the responsibility of Arctic States to take a lead in the transition, but also emphasized the importance of engaging Indigenous peoples, local communities, researchers and industries in the process.

In addition, the Icelandic Meteorological Office presented digital elevation models of glaciers in the Arctic and their monitoring and modelling of freshwater inflow to the Arctic Ocean, and showcased the dramatic changes already occurring in the Arctic environment. The Icelandic Chairmanship places importance on the continuation of both the modelling efforts undertaken during the United States’ Chairmanship (2015-2017) and Finland’s emphasis on meteorological cooperation and services (2017-2019).

Marine cooperation

The Arctic marine environment is a priority of the Icelandic Chairmanship, and the Council recently launched a new marine cooperation initiative, the Senior Arctic Officials’ (SAO) based Marine Mechanism (SMM), to enhance marine cooperation. Delegates discussed the outcomes of the initial SMM webinar series and the possibility of launching pilot projects. The Council will also look to update parts of its Arctic Marine Strategic Plan to reflect achievements that have been made and new knowledge gained.

Attendees of the first Arctic Leaders' Youth Summit in Rovaniemi November 2019

Youth engagement

The meeting followed up on the discussion on youth engagement as Arctic Council delegates had decided at the last Senior Arctic Officials’ meeting, held in Hveragerði, Iceland.

Many States and Permanent Participants had included a youth representative in their delegations. In total, 15 aspiring Arctic leaders joined the virtual meeting and actively contributed to discussion items.

“Youth engagement will also benefit the Arctic Council in the future, as youth are the leaders and experts of the future.” says Enni Similä, youth representative at the Saami Council.

Proposals for strengthened youth engagement were well received by all Arctic States and Permanent Participants. Suggestions included formal internship programs, continuation and expansion of youth representation in delegations, and the establishment of a youth group that could advise on possible further action. “This is the start of a journey, not the end of the voyage.” said Ambassador Einar Gunnarsson, Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials.

Incoming Russian Chairmanship

The delegation of the Russian Federation emphasized that youth cooperation also will play an important role in Russia’s upcoming Chairmanship and that all channels of the Council should be open for youth.

Further, Russia’s Senior Arctic Official, Nikolay Korchunov, outlined the program and priorities for the 2021-2023 Chairmanship. He noted that sustainable development will be a key focus of the Russian Chairmanship with the first priority being the human dimension, followed by an emphasis on the environment as the second and sustainable economic growth as the third priority area.

The Russian Federation will assume the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council at the Reykjavik Ministerial meeting in May 2021.

Covid-19 in the Arctic

Delegates discussed how the Council could tackle the challenges posed by Covid-19 in the Arctic. Representatives from the Arctic States and Permanent Participants agreed on the important role the Council – with its extensive network of experts and knowledge holders – can play in addressing the impacts of the pandemic in the Arctic.

Senior Arctic Officials were initially informed by a briefing document on Covid-19 in the Arctic prepared with the support of the Sustainable Development Working Group and the Arctic Council Secretariat that was discussed at the Senior Arctic Officials’ executive meeting in June 2020. Strong support was given to the SDWG’s coordinating role going forward.

Marine litter and plastic pollution

Plastic pollution in the Arctic marine environment is a priority area during the Icelandic Chairmanship. One of its main outputs will be the first regional action plan on marine litter in the Arctic for delivery at the Ministerial meeting in May 2021. The Working Group on the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) provided an overview of the plan, which will present a suite of strategic actions, addressing amongst others fisheries and aquaculture operations, waste management on ships, coastal clean-ups, and international cooperation. The action plan, which is a joint effort by the Arctic Council’s Working Groups, Arctic States, Permanent Participants and the Council’s Observers will also contain sections on environmental monitoring and implementation.

The Chairmanship’s designated special coordinator on marine litter and plastics pollution, Magnús Jóhannesson outlined the Council’s wider efforts on tackling marine litter and plastics, including the development of monitoring guidelines by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP). He further informed the delegates that the International Symposium on the Threat of Plastics in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic Marine Environment, originally scheduled to take place in spring 2020, has been postponed to 2-4 March 2021 due to the pandemic. The format of the symposium will be decided in January 2021.

Deliverables for the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting

The Council’s six Working Groups and the Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane reported on the progress of their projects and initiatives. Despite delays caused by the global pandemic, most projects have advanced. To date, close to 60 deliverables are expected to be presented to the Arctic Council Foreign Ministers at their meeting in Reykjavik, in May 2021.

Some of the expected deliverables are listed below.

From the Arctic Contaminants and Action Program (ACAP)

From the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP)

  • Results of scientific assessments of Climate Issues of Concern, and Air Pollution and Short-lived Climate Forcers
  • Results of scientific assessments of Climate Change Influences on Arctic Contaminants, and Human Health and Contaminants

From the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF)

From the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness, and Response (EPPR)

From the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME)

From the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG)

From the Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane (EGBCM)