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The EU has developed its new Arctic Policy – why is the Arctic so important for the EU?

17 November 2021

Governance Arctic Climate Change Pan-Arctic Outside the Arctic Oil and gas

Last month, the EU unveiled its new Arctic Policy. Despite that only a handful of EU members are Arctic nations, the EU plays an important role in shaping the region. The Arctic Programme's Governance and Sustainable Development Lead, Jan Dusik, weighs in on why the Arctic is so important for the EU what role the Policy will play.

The EU has developed its new Arctic Policy– why is the Arctic so important for the EU?
There are several aspects. Three members of the EU are Arctic countries, a number of EU members are also observer states, and the EU has a special relationship with Norway and Iceland. There is a significant geopolitical dimension to the EU’s engagement in the Arctic. EU is also putting emphasis, through its funds, on the cohesive economic development of its regions. But it also needs significant resources from the Arctic – in particular oil and gas, minerals and fish. Finally, the EU has made its environmental and climate policies its showcase, and wants to use it to leverage its impact in the Arctic.

Climate change is the biggest threat the Arctic is facing. What do we see in the Policy that best supports halting climate change from the EU?
The EU connects the Arctic policy with its global climate action leadership, being aware of the impacts on the region. Part of the EU’s global climate ambition is also creating a level playing field and demanding similar climate action from other players. But apart from helping to adapt to climate change in the Arctic, the EU rightly wants to also tackle the climate footprint both from the EU-27, but also by the Arctic countries (which together are responsible for 1/5 of global carbon emissions), EU’s call for a ban on new fossil fuel developments and a ban for importing produce from those onto the EU market is particularly welcome. This could be a very powerful decarbonization tool - both in the Arctic and worldwide. The EU also recognizes other elements of climate footprint, such as through shipping which still uses dirty fossil fuels, in particular, heavy fuel oil; shipping emissions, including from European ships, must urgently turn from major pollution sources to being part of the solution. And this is again where the EU’s role in global relations – this time in IMO – can be very effective.

The Policy emphasizes the importance of livelihoods of people in the Arctic, in particular of Indigenous peoples, what could this mean in practice?
The new EU Arctic Policy emphasizes the significance of the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples and other inhabitants of the Arctic. This was probably greatly helped by the extensive and inclusive consultation with these groups to inform the policy. Whether its implementation will bring net benefit for their livelihoods will be key for the success of the new policy. Free, prior and informed consent is an essential, but not the only element – the whole economic development narrative needs to be first and foremost addressed to the well-being of the Arctic inhabitants, respecting their knowledge, cultural heritage and identity. These should be, along with environmental and climate aspects, conditions for any use of the EU funds in the Arctic – and something that the EU could export to other Arctic actors through rules of sustainable financing and investments.

The EU, is also pushing for renewable development in the European Arctic and extracting the minerals necessary for low carbon transition, what are the trade-offs?
We need to realize that only a minority of the energy resources that come or could come from the Arctic are actually needed to meet the energy demands of the region – the major portion of energy resources is exported to meet global needs. The same goes for the extraction of minerals. These extraction activities should be done with the highest environmental and social standards, and the EU should be able to set the bar for others. EU should at the same time maximize the potential for the circular economy, to minimize the need for raw resources and associated environmental pressures.

It is essential that the EU should unequivocally promote a moratorium on deep seabed mining in the Arctic, which would be a very irresponsible adventure. Solving the EU’s green transition at the expense of Arctic people and the environment could seriously damage the EU’s reputation. EU should also do its homework in explaining the Arctic’s values and challenges to its own citizens, or consumers.

What role does the EU have in raising Arctic issues, especially the severe impacts of climate change in the Arctic?
In spite of still waiting to be admitted as an Arctic Council observer, the EU is a strong global player and its presence in the Arctic is undisputed. It should proactively seek to export its leadership in environmental and climate policy for ensuring a sustainable future of the Arctic and set a mirror for the Arctic countries’ own performance. Communicating about what’s happening in the Arctic is also important, given the many global connections, both causes and effects, of Arctic change.

From an Arctic perspective, are there any weaknesses in the Policy?
While the impact of shipping (both in the Arctic and the global footprint) is addressed in the new policy, it could be strengthened further, in particular in relation to faster pace of transition to cleaner fuels, but also protecting the marine biodiversity, such as reducing the underwater noise effects of shipping.

Secondly, the EU is a major player in global biodiversity policy discussions – both under the Convention on Biological Diversity and on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. The EU could emphasize the Arctic’s significance in those negotiations, and at the same time help to translate these global instruments into specific Arctic policies, such as the upcoming new Action for Arctic Biodiversity 2022-2030 (under CAFF’s lead). Also, the EU’s internal best practices with mainstreaming biodiversity into economic sectors could be inspiring for the Arctic realities.

Finally, the intention to ban new fossil fuel extraction and related imports to the EU could also benefit from a more decisive push to end fossil fuel subsidies, starting with those for production. Coming out of the Glasgow conference and facing the unprecedented pace of climate change in the Arctic, it is high time to stop subsidizing fossil fuel production and helping with pouring oil and gas into the furnace of climate change – it needs to be said loud and clear.

All in all, the new EU Arctic policy has a number of positive elements from the WWF Arctic perspective, although these few things could be added. However, the implementation of the policy will be key, including how it will be embraced by the EU’s member states in their own national policies and international relations, and how the EU will be capable of having its voice heard and matter in Arctic fora.

WWF Arctic Programme's Sustainable Development and Governance Lead, Jan Dusik at the EU Arctic Forum, November 2021. Photo: Petteri Vuorimaki.