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Maritime business opportunities in a thawing Arctic: Handle with care!

5 June 2018

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Sustainable Development Goals. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

There are few places on Earth where the impacts of climate change are more profound and dramatic than in the Arctic, notes STURLA HENRIKSEN. At the top of the world, temperatures are rising at almost twice the rate of the rest of the planet.

SINCE MY ELDEST DAUGHTER was born 33 years ago, more than two-thirds of the volume of Arctic summer ice has disappeared. As the ice sheets recede at an alarming rate, vast amounts of natural resources are being uncovered in the ocean and on the shore. This is affecting local communities, Indigenous cultures, livelihoods, industrial structures, ecosystems, landscapes and seascapes. Given this reality, business and industry must take steps to mitigate risks and avoid unintended negative impacts across their activities, particularly those in the Arctic.

Shifts in the Earth’s climate are already affecting the global economy. In the future, these changes are likely to be a powerful impetus to major changes in global patterns of trade, consumption and production. They may have significant effects on shipping and the wider maritime industries.


In this context, responsible and sustainable maritime activities will be essential for achieving several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, both in the Arctic region and around the world. When examining just a few of these 17 Global Goals—including eradicating poverty, providing decent work, creating infrastructure and sustainable communities, and tackling climate change—the pivotal role of the ocean, our greatest global common, becomes abundantly clear.

Responsible business engagement in the Polar Sea, for example, has significant potential to advance the Global Goals, a prospect that many of the business leaders I interact with regularly are quite excited about.

But I firmly believe that our approach should be sober and our actions cautious. I say this while acknowledging that there are many “Arctics.” The region is diverse in terms of climatic, environmental, biological and human perspectives. People have lived and worked in the Arctic for centuries. In some parts of the Barents Sea, operations are no more challenging than in other harsh water areas, such as the Norwegian Sea.

This all said, the general operational conditions facing the industry in this region are arguably more complex and demanding than anywhere else in the world. The ecosystems and environment are extremely fragile, as are the livelihoods and cultures of the Indigenous Peoples living there. The environmental and societal consequences of waste discharges or accidental oil spills may be far more damaging and long-lasting in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world.

For these reasons, all activities in the Arctic—including and perhaps especially those of businesses—require a precautionary approach based on sound scientific, industrial and hard-won practical knowledge.


Many opportunities exist for business to build resiliency through climate change adaptation, and the foundation for these opportunities should employ an approach rooted in universal principles. The Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact bring together the most important and universal standards of conduct across human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption.

By adopting this principles-based approach, businesses can ensure their positive contributions toward the Global Goals—in the Arctic and everywhere— do not have unintended negative consequences. At the same time, they can maximize their positive impacts.

Three kinds of actions are urgently needed to ensure safe and sustainable maritime operations in the Arctic:

  • Consistent implementation, vigorous enforcement and further development of the Polar Code, the regulatory framework under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization;
  • Better cooperation among Arctic
  • nations when it comes to developing relevant infrastructure and capacity in areas such as navigation, communication, weather forecasting, search and rescue, and bases for maintenance and repair, along with monitoring of drifting ice and icing conditions to increase safety for vessels;
  • Improved public-private cooperation and coordination to make better use of the infrastructure that businesses themselves bring to the area.

Last but not least, there is a need to promote capacity-building in local communities and with Indigenous Peoples so they can actively participate in shaping the future of the Arctic. For the people living in this region, the dramatic consequences of climate change are not a debate—they are a daily reality.

STURLA HENRIKSEN currently serves as special advisor on the ocean to the United Nations Global Compact. He was formerly the chief executive of the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association. He tweets @SturlaHenriksen. To learn more about his work on the ocean for the UN Global Compact, visit the webpage for the Sustainable Ocean Business Action Platform.