Photo from ACAP's Tundra Project
Photo from ACAP's Tundra Project
© Patrick Huber

The Arctic Council’s “clean-up crew”: An interview with ACAP Chair Patrick Huber

The Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP) is welcoming back Patrick Huber from the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency for his second term as Working Group Chair (2023-2025).

While his first term was heavily impacted by the pause of official Arctic Council activities (March 2022 – May 2023), Patrick Huber returns to his role with optimism. That ACAP is resuming its activities again and the group’s experts have remained dedicated to the work over the past year speaks to the importance of the Arctic and the value of the Arctic Council in being a steward for the region, he believes. Together with a strong team of experts and knowledge holders, Patrick is now looking forward to a series of important products that ACAP will launch during Norway’s Chairship of the Arctic Council – products that will make the Arctic a healthier and cleaner place. And while he might be hesitant to call ACAP a clean-up crew, he acknowledges the group’s important role in acting on scientific findings and demonstrating how they can deal with clean-up issues in the Arctic.

Learn more about ACAP’s role in the Arctic Council and its anticipated deliverables in this interview with Patrick Huber.

Patrick Huber
© Private

How does ACAP's work align with Norway's overarching priorities?

The priorities of Norway's Chairship have a strong focus on the environment and that is ACAP’s wheelhouse. Our focus lies on human health and on improving the natural environment for all people that reside in the Arctic – whether through mitigation projects or pollution removal projects. Latter also links to another cornerstone of Norway’s Chairship program: the oceans.

The oceans have become a receiver of a lot of the world's pollution, including solid waste that flows down rivers into the ocean. ACAP is addressing solid waste in Arctic communities through several initiatives. Thus, our core work aligns perfectly with what Norway hopes to achieve under its Chairship.

Then, there are Norway’s crosscutting priorities looking at youth and Indigenous Peoples. This is where ACAP especially over the past six to seven years has directed its focus. We have developed leadership opportunities for Indigenous Peoples’s organizations and searched for ways to engage youth. We've done so primarily through our Indigenous Peoples’ Contaminants Action Program, but also through projects like the Black Carbon Case Studies, where we share initiatives from across the Arctic and beyond and make them accessible to the public. Now, we would like to see our work move towards more targeted communication, reaching youth audiences, and we will also continue to bring youth more meaningfully into our project work.

In the end, it’s about looking at where areas of opportunity are, where we can provide short-term and longer-term solutions for communities. Patrick Huber

Norway will put a special emphasis on short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), such as black carbon. Could you tell us how ACAP addresses black carbon emissions?

Over the years, ACAP has done some significant work with regard to SLCPs. For one, we've helped to conduct emission inventories on black carbon in the circumpolar Arctic. We've started to take assessments of how humans are impacted by black carbon and then, most importantly, we have worked to demonstrate how we can prevent black carbon from entering the atmosphere and from impacting air quality and human health.

To get a wider perspective, we have looked at how people around the world are addressing black carbon and developed case studies. These case studies are looking at what type of intervention was made, and which impact it has had. From this we can learn whether an intervention is scalable or relatable to communities across the Arctic.

ACAP works across different scales. On the one hand, ACAP often works with communities to develop interventions. For example, we’ve worked with communities to swap out old diesel engines and to replace them with integrated renewable systems, such as photovoltaic modules or a wind turbine.

On the other hand, ACAP has also been looking at larger scale projects that address black carbon reductions from, for example, associated petroleum gas flaring.

In the end, it’s about looking at where areas of opportunity are, where we can provide short-term and longer-term solutions for communities. We are identifying actions they can take immediately to reduce the impacts of black carbon and to reduce black carbon from being created in the first place.

You have already mentioned the Indigenous Peoples’ Contaminants Action Program (IPCAP) and the work ACAP conducts in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples. Could you elaborate a bit more on this collaboration?

IPCAP is one of ACAP’s Expert Groups and it’s led by the Indigenous Peoples’ organizations that have Permanent Participant status in the Arctic Council. This Expert Group was created specifically to develop projects that the Permanent Participants wanted to see taken up in the Arctic Council, and we have had some great success with IPCAP projects.

Our first big success was a Circumpolar Local Environmental Observer Network (CLEO), which built on the Local Environmental Observer Network, short: Leo Network, that had been developed in Alaska by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. CLEO offers a platform for community-based monitoring of environmental impacts affecting communities. The platform started with observations from Alaska but has since spread to Canada, Norway and beyond. Thus, we now have regional hubs in which experts curate observations from a local perspective to help understand these better, to provide consultation and to connect observations that have been made around the world.

Today, hundreds of communities and thousands of observers contribute to this interdisciplinary platform, which brings together remote and Indigenous communities with scientists, government employees, and private sector actors. If there for example has been an unusual mortality event, a harmful algae bloom, or an invasive species has been detected, the community can discuss and address the observed changes.

Another example is the work initiated by the Aleut International Association (AIA) on addressing black carbon and its health effects in communities. It’s a very sensitive issue when you ask community members to wear a monitor that tells them about the pollutants they are exposed to. Thus, projects like these require a lot of trust to collect the data needed for finding solutions to reduce local emissions of black carbon.

We had a similar approach to solid waste management in remote communities, addressing another issue that affects people in their daily lives. Through the increasing availability of quick turn-around products, there’s a lot more waste in the Arctic. The Saami Council therefore helped us in developing a project on solid waste management in the Arctic, which addresses how remote communities are dealing with off grid solid waste management.

ACAP's Tundra project worked with a local reindeer herding community to swap out old diesel engines and to replace them with integrated renewable systems
© Patrick Huber

Another cross-cutting focus of Norway’s Chairship is youth, could you give us some insights on how ACAP plans to engage youth in its work?

We would like to ensure that youth become an integral part of our projects, but it takes time to develop a project that's meaningfully engaging youth, where youth are driving and directing the work – rather than just ticking a box for youth engagement. As for our existing projects, such as the Black Carbon Case Studies and the CLEO project, we would be happy to receive input from youth – both are open platforms that are available to people of all ages.

What we aim to do in the short-term is to improve how we communicate with youth. We've started this effort a few years back by creating more non-readable content, such as short video clips for example on flaring and the ACAP Tundra Project. The challenge for us now is to regularly communicate through social media channels on topics that are of most concern to young people, including pollution issues affecting communities, climate change and mitigation and adaptation options.

One could say that ACAP looks for ways to complement the work by other Working Groups by developing best practices and case studies that can be taken up by communities, private sector actors, and governments. Patrick Huber

Many of the issues in the Arctic need the expertise of several of the Council’s Working Groups (WGs), could you give an example of how ACAP collaborates with other WGs?

We collaborate with several of the other Working Groups. I have mentioned our CLEO project a couple of times already. Once you log into the CLEO network, you will find hundreds of different thematic areas that observations are categorized under. Invasive species is one of these and because many observations related to it, we are working with the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) Working Group on this issue.

We have also worked with CAFF on their project related to mainstreaming biodiversity in mining operations. ACAP experts joined the project committee, helping to look at some of the mining work that's being done in the Arctic and identifying how we can more actively integrate environmental considerations, and in particularly biodiversity considerations, into decisions around mining in the Arctic.

Further, ACAP is implementing a project on Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), an extinguishing agent used to extinguish flammable liquid fires, such as fuel fires. The project seeks to help companies to transition away from using these types of firefighting foams as they contain chemicals that are staying in the environment for thousands of years – that’s why they are also called forever chemicals – harming the environment and human health. The idea for this project came from research conducted by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) on chemicals of emerging concern. This is a perfect example of why ACAP was established in the first place: to help implement some of the recommendations coming out of AMAP’s assessments.

Finally, we're also currently developing a project on wildland fire management as fires become more and more prevalent and dangerous in the Arctic – a topic that has been addressed by CAFF, the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group and to some extent AMAP. An expertise ACAP can bring to the issue is looking at how can we reduce smoke impacts from wildland fires, for example through DIY air filters that people can install in their homes in order to breathe easier.

So generally, one could say that ACAP looks for ways to complement the work by other Working Groups by developing best practices and case studies that can be taken up by communities, private sector actors, and governments.

Fire fighting foam
© iStock

ACAP is known for its pilot projects that contribute to better environmental conditions and human well-being. Could you talk a bit about the impacts of these pilot projects that you have seen over the years?

One example that is near and dear to me is the Tundra Project, which was unique in several ways. The project was set in an Indigenous reindeer herding community on the Kola Peninsula, which had a culling station that needed to improve its energy supply. They had a very unreliable diesel system and we worked with them to replace it with an integrated system including a mobile wind-diesel power generation unit with equipment for independent electricity supply. This measure immediately reduced the farm’s use of diesel and also provided reliable electricity that allowed the reindeer herders to work through the polar winter.

The project thus had an economic impact by reducing costs for fuel, but it also had a direct environmental and health impact as less emissions were released, and the exhaust now was filtered. The project was able to create a better experience for the reindeer herders – so much so that the owners of the cooperative decided that they wanted to upgrade their second station and installed a photovoltaic system.

Another area where you can see a lot of growth and impact in ACAP’s work is within IPCAP. Going back to CLEO and our solid waste management projects, these efforts address some of the biggest challenges of our time, namely climate change and solid waste, particularly plastic pollution. So, staying at the vanguard of both the policy and project level work is ACAP’s focus and what we plan to continue to do for years to come.

“We are the ones that come in to demonstrate how we can deal with a clean-up issue.” Patrick Huber

Could you provide us with an outlook on what ACAP will work on during the next two years?

We aim to advance the work on some of the projects I have already mentioned, including solid waste management and the health effects of black carbon. In particular with increasing wildland fires, communities are encumbered by increasing amounts of black carbon. Thus, wildland fire management is a big issue and something that ACAP has both interest and expertise for, as well as resources to develop project work.

Then, we want to build on the work that we've done within the AFFF project. We have developed a transition manual, which can be used by anybody who operates a firefighting facility to transition away from harmful extinguishers. Our ambition is to help spur pilot projects by working with airport facilities or municipal fire brigades, including in small communities. By working with community leaders on swapping out the old stocks and bringing in new, we can arrest a legacy problem before it even arises.

Further, there’s some interest within ACAP to take up work on mining. We recognize that as we transition to renewable sources of energy worldwide, the impacts of mining on the environment and on people's health will need to be squarely in focus. We need to make sure that we are taking care of how we extract those minerals and of the communities that are impacted.

And then, I’m going back to youth. We've started working with CAFF on an Arctic Youth Ambassador Program and our vision is that there would be opportunities for youth to take up project work that is resourced and designed by youth. We haven't quite figured out how to make that work but it’s something we're really eager to implement. We want to make youth a long-term part of our work and enable them to help guide our efforts.

For our work generally, I think it's important to be listening to the people who reside in the Arctic, hearing from them as they determine what areas they want us to be looking at. I don't want to say that ACAP is like a clean-up crew – but in effect we play that role for the Arctic Council. We are the ones that come in to demonstrate how we can deal with a clean-up issue.

Could you give our readers a teaser of what output we can expect from ACAP during the Norwegian Chairship?

The manual on phasing out AFFF is probably our biggest deliverable and the one I'm the most excited about because it's not just a product that's usable in the Arctic. AFFF are used worldwide. Thus, once the manual is released, we're planning to work with the UN on translating it into the official UN languages, making it usable worldwide for any facility that wants to make this transition. Putting the Arctic Council at the forefront of both the technology and the policy changes in this area is monumental.

But we have a whole range of products we are looking forward to launching, including story maps and different tools and resources that will be available for communities, for example on solid waste management. We've got a few products that are now in the queue for approval, and we've got several that we're hoping to get started on – so there’s definitely materials to look forward to.