Often we hear about the Arctic as a place buffeted by international and regional pressures—pollutants from agriculture, planetary climate impacts, and rising industrial pressures caused by globalized demand. But the Arctic is also a place of bright hope. It is a place where humankind has a unique opportunity to get development right. Getting it right means instead of viewing the region as a resource frontier to be plundered, we view it as place where sustainability can be more than an afterthought, a place where knowledge-based decisions can safeguard Arctic ecosystems for the benefit of Arctic peoples and humanity as a whole. Our biggest challenge in the Arctic is that we may intervene in Arctic systems on an industrial scale before really understanding the workings and functions of those systems, and so unleash a cascade of impacts that will affect us on a local and global scale. These potential industrial impacts would be added to those already disrupting Arctic systems as a consequence of climate change.

Unique and Fragile Nature in State of Flux

The Arctic covers more than 32 million square kilometers, about six percent of the surface of the globe. Various and unique Arctic ecosystems are still natural and less fragmented than most other landscapes in the world. For instance, the Canadian territory of Nunavut covers more than two million square kilometers, but has only 25 communities, none larger than 7,000 people, and no connecting roads. Freshwater is also an important feature; more than 50 percent of the world's wetlands are in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Much of this area is still relatively untouched by direct human activity, and the Arctic is home to over 21,000 species of wildlife. Though direct industrial impacts are still uncommon, the effects of global climate change have led to an unprecedented state of flux. Evidence indicates that Arctic summer temperatures have been higher in the past few decades than at any time in the past 2,000 years. The most drastic result of continued warming is the ongoing shrinking of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, in terms of extent, thickness, and volume. The Arctic Ocean is projected to become nearly ice-free in summer within this century, likely within the next 30 to 40 years. Life in the Arctic Ocean is highly adapted to the presence of ice, from polar bears that hunt on the ice, to seals that give birth on the ice, walrus that rest and feed on the ice, and whales that feed and hide from predators amongst the ice. These are just the more visible parts of a whole ecosystem that is driven by pulses of nutrients mediated by the ebb and flow of sea ice.

A change in the timing of nutrient pulses can spell difficulty for both endemic and migratory species. Millions of migratory birds, connecting the Arctic to the rest of the world, including to Australia, Argentina or South Africa, rely on the pulse of life in the Arctic spring. Changes in permafrost and snow cover hold consequences for terrestrial species. The warming climate means differences in ground cover that may be less inviting to existing species such as caribou and reindeer. Grazing animals are also affected by increasing freeze-thaw cycles that lock food beneath sheets of ice. Marine systems are threatened by more than just changes in temperature; they must also adapt to acidification. There is evidence that the Arctic Ocean will likely be particularly prone to rising acidity levels due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. For sea life that forms shells, a more acidic ocean is a problem. Much of that shell-forming sea life in the Arctic is zooplankton, an important part of the food web. However, the 2013 Arctic Council assessment of ocean acidification concluded that more study is required to assess the effects of acidification on Arctic ecosystems.

Home for People

The Arctic is not just a wildlife refuge that is rich in pristine ecosystems. Unlike the Antarctic, it also provides a home to around four million people. Roughly ten percent of people in the Arctic are indigenous. In some places, such as Greenland, indigenous peoples are the majority (88 percent) of the population. In others, such as northern Scandinavia, they make up only a small percentage (2.5 percent) of the population.

The Survey of Living Conditions in the Arctic, which covered indigenous households in Alaska, Greenland, Canada and Chukotka, found that in two-thirds of the households surveyed, traditional food accounted for half or more of their household’s consumption. Many Arctic residents combine subsistence activities with wages or subsidies, creating a mixed economy. Perhaps the greatest impact of a changing Arctic environment is that changes may restrict peoples’ access to subsistence resources. This will have not only economic and physical impacts, but also cultural impacts. If access to traditional resources diminishes, Arctic peoples are likely to increasingly look to new industries for support. The key is to ensure that these new industries do not further erode the means of their subsistence.

New Opportunities or Major Threats?

The formal economy of the Arctic revolves largely around resource extraction, predominantly of non-renewable resources. This is an activity that is projected to increase in importance, driven largely by three factors: the increased global demand or price for resources which are growing scarce in more accessible regions; the increased access potentiated by a decrease in sea ice; and political pressures within Arctic states to develop resources. The investment driven by this sector of the economy is likely to increase significantly in the near future. Arctic Opening: Opportunity and Risk in the High North, a report commissioned by the insurance group Lloyds, concludes that “investment in the Arctic could potentially reach $100 billion or more over the next ten years, largely in the development of non-renewable natural resources, and in infrastructure construction and renewal.” Some of the activity is driven by the usual corporate profit objectives, but there is also a political side to it. Some Arctic governments are interested in obtaining more political independence through greater fiscal independence, and others see industrial development as an aspect of asserting sovereignty over those resources. "It is fundamental that all Arctic stakeholders work together to mainstream Arctic ecosystem services into decision-making and financial systems in the Arctic to support responsible development."

Mining is currently the most widespread and one of the most economically important of the resource extraction activities taking place in the Arctic. Where mining deposits occur close to the coastline (as in the soon-to-be-opened iron mine in Nunavut, Canada), they are increasingly attractive, especially when they require bulk shipment, as the declining sea ice allows longer access to ship in supplies and ship out ore. Mining is anticipated to be one of the major drivers in the growth of Arctic shipping in the coming decades, according to the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment.
Oil and gas are the most widely discussed and most controversial resource development sectors in the Arctic. In 2008, the United States Geological Survey said, “The total mean undiscovered conventional oil and gas resources of the Arctic are estimated to be approximately 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.” The largest energy source in this estimate is natural gas, representing 30 percent of global undiscovered natural gas (approximately equivalent to Russia’s entire current proven reserves). Much of the undiscovered gas is in Russian territory, while the oil is estimated to be mostly offshore of Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Onshore oil and gas development is already well underway in the Arctic.

Oil development in the offshore waters of the Arctic is the most controversial. Shell has encountered major difficulties (both technical and regulatory) in its efforts to drill in the Alaskan offshore; exploratory drilling in Greenlandic waters in Baffin Bay drew concern from Canadian Arctic residents; and Norway is pushing its oil exploration closer to more ice-covered waters. A few of the sector’s major players (including Total, BP, and Conoco) have announced their withdrawal from oil and gas projects in the high Arctic due to substantial risks and the absence of key technologies and infrastructure to ensure safe operations as well as reasonable economic returns. Volatility in global oil prices can price offshore Arctic production out of the market, as has been demonstrated already by decisions of several oil companies to suspend or abandon Arctic projects.

Shipping in the Arctic has seen a significant increase over the past decade, both in terms of destinational shipping (resupply and cruise) and in terms of transit shipping. According to the Northern Sea Route Information office, there were 158 transits of the Northern Sea Route through Arctic Russia from 2011 to 2013. Last year, the first bulk carrier went through the Northwest Passage above Canada and Alaska. Most experts expect the Northern Sea Route to become the more travelled of the two routes in the next few decades as a transit route, due to less risky ice conditions, and to Russian investments in infrastructure.

The challenge to all industries looking to operate in the Arctic is that it presents conditions not found in any other environment.

The Arctic already supports four of the ten largest world fisheries, and there is likely room for further growth. There were 30 fishing ship voyages in the Canadian Arctic in 2005 and 221 in 2010; the Greenlandic shrimp catch has increased by 50 percent over the last decade. The Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas already produce more than ten percent of global marine fisheries catches by weight, and the total catch of wild fish in the Arctic amounts to more than seven million tons per year. Fisheries are essential to local economies: fish products represent 90 percent of the export earnings of Greenland, and 33 percent of those of Iceland.

The challenge to all industries looking to operate in the Arctic is that it presents conditions not found in any other environment. Ice, extreme cold and long hours of darkness test equipment and human capabilities, and sparse infrastructure and human capacity means that there are few response options in case of accidents. While industrial development is expanding in the Arctic, serious challenges make its consequences unclear. There are very few reliable technologies designed to work in Arctic conditions; there is very limited infrastructure in most areas (including search and rescue, and response capabilities); few strategic environmental assessments have been done for the Arctic; there are no or very limited strong sectoral Arctic-specific standards, especially in the oil and gas industry; there is minimal knowledge of Arctic ecosystems, their dynamics under climate change, and reactions to new impacts; and there is still no comprehensive regional or international governance regime for ecosystem-based management. If we want development in the Arctic to be sustainable, if we want to maintain renewable resources to provide subsistence and economic options for Arctic peoples, and if we want a healthy Arctic to continue to provide a nursery for migratory and other species, these gaps must be filled.

Implementing a Vision for the Arctic

The dominant discourse in policy discussions of the Arctic regards it simply as a resource frontier, as exemplified by the slogan for the international Arctic Forum in Moscow in 2010: “The Arctic: resource base of the 21st century.” A similar approach—considering extractive industries as the only future for the region—was also demonstrated in October 2014 at the meeting of a newly emerging forum, the Arctic Circle. The irony of this frame for the Arctic is that Arctic renewable resources, which are the best basis for sustainable development, are already at risk due to the changing climate. Exploiting oil and gas in the Arctic will magnify the climate risk while simultaneously introducing localized risks to those same renewable resources. This extractive agenda should not be considered the only viable option for the future of the Arctic. Arctic communities are already beginning to explore alternative solutions. They are looking at local sources of renewable energy, replacing dependence on diesel power, and using education and global communications connections to find new pathways to economic growth. Arctic communities and ecosystems do not need industrial megaprojects. They need investment in sustainable development that benefits communities.

Today the Arctic is desperately lacking buy-in to a coherent long-term vision and plan. Arctic states formed a regional forum in 1996, the Arctic Council, which includes Arctic indigenous peoples’ organizations. Sustainable development is a central principle enshrined in the founding document of the Arctic Council, the Ottawa Declaration. Nonetheless, while they have agreed to the principle, the states have not charted a course to achieve it. The Arctic Council is making positive adjustments, but with the change of the chair every two years, it follows predominantly two-year cycles without planning for any longer perspective. The Arctic is desperately in need of that longer-term perspective, a vision of how to implement sustainable development, and a plan to implement that vision.

The Way Forward

Perhaps the first step is for Arctic and other states is to change the way they talk about the Arctic—not as a wasteland frontier to be exploited, a simple storehouse of resources, but as a settled place in need of good governance to protect its existing renewable resources, and sustainably develop them. To move toward such a positive and entirely achievable vision, the following priority areas of intervention need to be supported by the widest possible variety of stakeholders in the Arctic.

Fight climate change at all levels. States should agree on strong measures at an international level to mitigate climate change through emission control. With sufficient will, this could be achieved at the coming UNFCCC meeting in Paris. This needs to be supplemented at the regional level by specific actions in all Arctic states and beyond (in particular Arctic Council Observer States) on short-lived climate pollutants. These often locally generated pollutants include black carbon, more commonly known as soot. Dark particles from industrial fires land on ice and snow, and speed the melting of ice. Countries contributing to this black carbon load need to work out where it is produced, and shut down or clean up sources, including flaring off natural gas from oilfields. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition has already begun some of this work.

Stewardship of the Arctic Ocean. All Arctic states should commit to developing a framework for the implementation and monitoring of marine protected areas (MPAs), including concrete timelines, milestones, and results-oriented targets. This will contribute to the global “Aichi” targets set out by the Convention on Biological Diversity, and allow the Arctic to demonstrate global leadership by granting new or enhanced legal protection to specific ecologically and biologically significant marine areas. As suggested by the United States as incoming Arctic Council chair, it is also timely to advance a Regional Seas Programme for the Arctic Ocean to create a legal framework for Arctic Ocean conservation and management, including restrictions on drilling and fishing industries. This will facilitate coordinated management of development impacts and conservation strategies.

Protect biodiversity and enhance provision of ecosystem services. All development plans in the Arctic must integrate ecological, social and economic policies and practices—that is, ecosystem-based management (EBM). A corollary to this approach is that all industrial sectors operating in the region must respect and support the implementation of a robust and representative pan-Arctic network of specially managed areas that protect primary habitat for focal Arctic species and key resilient features, and halts harmful industrial impacts in significant ecological areas. Strategic environmental impact assessments—including the analysis of cumulative impacts as well as land and marine use planning processes—represent effective tools and mechanisms to implement ecosystem-based management, and harvest the benefits of development while mitigating environmental impacts.

It is fundamental that all Arctic stakeholders work together to mainstream Arctic ecosystem services into decision-making and financial systems in the Arctic to support responsible development. Doing this will require conscious and sustained efforts from Arctic governments and governments outside the Arctic alike—especially those that house large financial services and insurance sectors, because these are the sectors that support development, but also comprehend risk. Mainstreaming will require multiple angles of approach, working with financial services and insurance providers to promote less risky (and therefore more financially sound) investments, while convincing publics and governments in the Arctic that it is ultimately in their best interests to support more sustainable development plans.

Address oil pollution and shipping threats. Arctic states should develop a meaningful binding agreement to address the prevention of oil spills in the Arctic marine environment in a broad and holistic manner, including competence, training, management systems, and safety culture; planning and ensuring that oil and gas decision-making and shipping occur in the context of ecosystem-based management and spatial planning; bonded liability for oil spills, and transparency and public participation in decision-making.

It is also essential to initiate the development of Phase II of the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code, an international shipping agreement that would cover Polar Regions. Arctic Council member states, permanent participants and observer states must be mobilized to focus on improving environmental protections that were not covered in phase one of the code’s developments. These protections should include a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil, restrictions for the emission of black carbon from shipping, prevention of the introduction of non-native or invasive species through ballast water discharges and hull fouling, and the impact on marine mammals of underwater noise. Considering that some major shipping nations just joined the Arctic Council as observers, their support of such provisions would help prove their bona fides as supporters of Arctic environmental protection.

Strengthen Arctic communities and improve their economic and living conditions. Arctic peoples need a way forward economically that does not rely on destructive, short-term extractive projects. It is a matter of urgency to initiate development of integrated Arctic-tailored green growth strategies in partnership with all relevant stakeholders. The role of biodiversity and ecosystem services in supporting the wellbeing of Arctic peoples is already well known, but sustaining these must be further researched via Arctic Council projects on Arctic Resilience and the Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic.

Regional governance: strengthen the Arctic Council through national implementation and accountability. In 2013, Arctic states at the Kiruna Ministerial meeting pledged to pursue opportunities to expand the Arctic Council’s roles from policy-shaping into policy-making”. WWF recommends that efforts to achieving this vision focus on three key elements: the development of National Plans of Implementation with clear implementation targets to support national Arctic strategies and decisions of the Arctic Council; government reporting (including the regular publication of a State of the Arctic Report) on a periodic basis to the Council and to the public; and cross-boundary cooperation to ensure international actions in order to move from policy recommendations to implementation. Cooperation could be agreed on specific sectors, geographies, or both. There is a precedent already for this, such as the 2011 legally binding Agreement On Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic. WWF supports the organization of a review of the Arctic Council structure to examine whether it continues to meet its own objectives. This work should include bolstering capacity for implementation of Arctic Council decisions, and strengthening the Council as an institution that takes accountability for implementation of policies and agreements developed under its auspices, including at a national level.

The Arctic provides a fascinating test for humanity. Now that we have removed the icy lid that protected the region for so long, can we resist emptying it out? Can we fill it with policies wiser than those we have pursued in much of the rest of the world, learning from local peoples and global experience? Frontier lands have typically been brutalized and despoiled precisely because they were far away from rules of law. Let us make the Arctic a place where laws, wise and just, govern a sustainable homeland for Arctic peoples and wildlife far into the future.