Credit: Nina Ågren
The work of the Arctic Council is so intricately linked to its six Working Groups that it would be impossible to write about the Council’s accomplishments without referring to their projects, monitoring programs, reports and assessments. The story of the Working Groups, however, predates the Council itself. It begins in the late 1980s. One person who is intimately familiar with the subsidiary bodies’ origins is Lars-Otto Reiersen, one of the creators and former executive secretary of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme. With his help, the story of the six is retold.

Prelude – The fragile state of the Arctic environment

The Arctic was in an alarming state at the end of the 1980s. Pollution from industrialized areas deposited in the High North and accumulated in the environment and animals. Acid rain permeated soils and lakes of northern Fenno-Scandinavia, the northwestern Soviet Union and eastern Canada. Radionuclides, remnants of nuclear-weapon testing during the 1950s and 1960s and the Chernobyl accident, deposited on Arctic vegetations and contaminated animals grazing on lichen.

These contaminants and pollutants were indifferent of national borders and affected the Arctic on either side of the iron curtain. And, although the region was torn by decades of the Cold War, its fragile state did not go unnoticed. In 1987, the Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev stepped on a podium in Murmansk and delivered a historical address, calling on Arctic States to collaborate on the pressing environmental issues in their Northern territories.

He had set the ball in motion and neighboring Finland was prepared to join the match. In 1989, the Finnish Foreign Minister and the Minister for the Environment invited the Arctic States to Rovaniemi to discuss how they could address the degradation of their shared Arctic. Jointly they identified six specific pollution issues that needed urgent attention: persistent organic contaminants, oil pollution, heavy metals, noise, radioactivity and acidification. The delegates agreed to reconvene in two years for a Ministerial meeting – in the meantime, there was homework to be done.

Four Task Forces for an Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy

Norway and the Russian Federation took on the task to determine whether it would be possible to set up a monitoring program for the Arctic. When the Norwegian delegates came back to Oslo, they called Lars-Otto Reiersen, then working for the State Pollution Control Authority and leading an assessment on the North Sea, for a meeting. “They asked me to look into the task. So, I talked to some of my friends at the agency who were working with EMEP, the monitoring program for long-range transmission of air pollutants in Europe, and we put together some ideas from our experiences in atmospheric and marine monitoring.” The new Arctic program should as much as possible be based on existing international and national programs.

In March 1990, Lars-Otto Reiersen and Pål Prestrud from the Norwegian Ministry of Environment went to Leningrad, today’s St. Petersburg, to present the ideas to the Russian counterparts at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute. “We had a good meeting with our Russian colleagues, and they liked the idea”, said Lars-Otto Reiersen.

The ice was broken and Reiersen and his colleagues did not idle. They arranged a science conference in Oslo in November of the same year with more than one hundred experts from all Arctic States, Germany, the United Kingdom and the International Arctic Science Committee, IASC. Based on the documents presented to the Leningrad meeting, Reiersen and his colleagues put the existing plans on the table. “We discussed which issues should be prioritized, if for example climate change should be included. But it was decided that we should focus on pollution issues, the recently established Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, would cover the climate aspect,” he recalled. By the time the meeting adjourned, they had drafted a work plan for a possible Arctic monitoring and assessment program.

Half a year later, in June 1991, the Arctic States met in Rovaniemi as agreed. Deeply concerned with the threats to the Arctic environment, they signed the declaration that would establish the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). The plans for an Arctic monitoring and assessment program were integrated as one measure to this strategy. In addition, the Environment Ministers decided that mechanisms were needed to address the conservation of Arctic flora and fauna, the protection of the Arctic marine environment and emergency prevention preparedness response. They equipped the AEPS with four Task Forces that would help them to implement the strategy, foster scientific cooperation and increase the understanding of the pathways, sinks and effects of pollution in the Arctic. These Task Forces – or workhorses as the former AMAP Chair David Stone appropriately named them – were AMAP, CAFF, PAME and EPPR.

AMAP was to measure the levels of anthropogenic pollutants, to assess their effects in the Arctic environment and on humans, especially the Arctic Indigenous peoples and to identify the likely sources. The assessments should be presented in status reports as a basis for necessary steps to be taken to reduce the pollution. CAFF was created a forum for scientists, Indigenous peoples and conservation managers to exchange data and information and to collaborate for more effective research, sustainable utilization and conservation. EPPR was established as a network for information on Arctic accidents and for facilitating co-operation among the Arctic States in the areas of emergency prevention, preparedness and response. And, PAME was set up as a means to take preventive and other measures directly or through competent international organizations regarding marine pollution in the Arctic irrespective of origin. “Irrespective of origin was an important formulation here, which Ray Arnado, the negotiator from the United States, and I were able to bring into the text. It meant that we could also analyze pollutants from military sources,” explained Lars-Otto Reiersen.

Moving beyond solely protecting the environment

At the first AEPS Ministerial meeting, which took place in Nuuk in 1993, the Ministers welcomed the efforts of the four and promoted them from temporary Task Forces to more permanent Working Groups. “AMAP delivered the first status report at this meeting, very simple but to the point on pollution actions. We had also seen over the past two years that the IPCC did not look north of sixty degrees. So, we made a proposal to include climate issues in our work and it was accepted,” said Lars-Otto Reiersen, by then the executive secretary of AMAP.

Besides climate change, the Nuuk Ministerial gave rise to another focus area of the AEPS: sustainable development, including the sustainable use of renewable resources by Indigenous peoples. To that end, the Ministers agreed to set up a Task Force on Sustainable Development and Utilization, which later should turn into the fifth Working Group under the AEPS.

However, by the time, the Arctic Council was established in 1996, only the first four AEPS Working Groups were integrated into the new forum – a sustainable development program under the Council was still to be developed. And it was. At the Arctic Council’s first Ministerial in Iqaluit, the Arctic States established the program as well as a Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG), which would inter alia address issues related to Arctic children and youth, health, resource management and national sustainable development strategies.

A need to act upon the knowledge

Around the same time, in 1997, AMAP released its comprehensive report Arctic Pollution Issues: State of the Arctic Environment, which raised increased concern among the Arctic States. “They decided that a follow-up mechanism was needed that could address the pollution sources identified by AMAP, and Norway was asked to prepare a draft plan of action, which could be presented to Ministers in Iqaluit,” said Lars-Otto Reiersen.

The Arctic Council Action Plan to eliminate pollution of the Arctic environment (ACAP) was designed to act as a strengthening and supporting mechanism for national actions. Its most important function would be to ensure that Arctic States prevented adverse effects, reduced and ultimately eliminated pollution in the Arctic environment. One important tool of ACAP would be its pilot projects, starting off with a trial to phasing out the use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), a group of harmful chemicals used in industry, and manage PCB-contaminated wastes in the Russian Federation – an initiative that the Ministers welcomed and supported.

Two years later, ACAP was endorsed and adopted by the Arctic States at the Barrow Ministerial in 2000, but it would take until 2006 before the Ministers approved ACAP as a Working Group. At that point, they simplified the name to Arctic Contaminants Action Program and kept the acronym.

Epilogue – A unique Arctic knowledge bank

The challenges the Arctic faces today are even more dire and interlinked, but the co-operation and capacity to deal with challenges are at a significantly higher level. The ambitious work of the six Working Groups is the driving force – the horse power – of the Arctic Council. The common knowledge and capacity building creates a stronger foundation for the Council to contribute to fulfillment of and follow-up on international conventions for protection of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity in the Arctic.

Read more: The Arctic Council Working Groups