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Why the Arctic needs the UN Sustainable Development Goals

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.

The Arctic’s challenges are vast and deep, writes TIMO KOIVUROVA: The region is warming at twice the rate of the global average, ice and snow are melting, ecosystems are transform­ing — and Indigenous and local cultures are struggling to adapt.

GLOBAL WARMING is caused by activities elsewhere in the world, yet Arctic communities feel the impact most acutely. For example, environmental pollutants are driven north by changing wind patterns. Arctic mines and the jobs that go with them open and close based on swings in global market prices, causing economic insecurity in the region.

Given the influence of global processes on the Arctic’s fortunes, it is critical that we make the connection between global work on sustainable development, on the one hand, and Arctic work on the other. Finland, the current chair of the Arctic Council, made it a priority to look to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—adopted by the nation-states of the world—to serve as the council’s guiding framework. It is crucial that the council continue this work because it will inform the UN’s post-2030 development agenda. Unfortunately, global sustainable development frameworks still do not reflect the Arctic’s priorities. That needs to change. The Arctic and its unique features are critically important to the health of our planet.

UN Sustainable development goals

While nation-states around the world are responsible for realizing the SDGs, the Arctic Council can play a role in supporting their work. The council has been working on sustainable development questions in their various dimensions (economic, social and environmental) for more than 20 years, so it is well positioned to help Arctic countries meet the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets.

We need to create mechanisms to scrutinize how we can use the SDGs to promote sustainable development in the Arctic. If we want the SDGs to really advance sustainable development, we need to ensure they reflect the Arctic’s special conditions. The traditional livelihoods of the Arctic—such as berry picking, hunting and reindeer herding—are good examples of what is unique about the region.

We must capture the reality of traditional livelihoods like these and understand their importance in the Arctic. This is not going to be easy. In the Arctic, traditional livelihoods are important not only economically, but culturally and spiritually. How can we develop indicators that speak to their importance? If we cannot properly take account of traditional livelihoods, it is hard to see how we will advance sustainable development in the region.

Since many changes in the Arctic have their origins outside the region, it is important for Arctic countries and peoples to take “Arctic messages” to global forums. Sustainable development in the Arctic is going to be very difficult if the rest of the world does not understand how its actions affect the region, and cannot or will not acknowledge its responsibility. One such opportunity is the UN High-Level Political Forum, which oversees the implementation of the SDGs. This forum should highlight the fact that the actions of faraway nations have dire consequences for sustainable development in the Arctic.

As Timo Soini, Finland’s foreign minister and current chair of the Arctic Council, argued at the Rovaniemi Arctic Spirit conference in November 2017, sustainable development is not just wishful thinking. It is nothing less than an international strategy for survival.

TIMO KOIVUROVA is director of the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland.