Managing the Arctic: A Norwegian Perspective

Managing the Arctic: A Norwegian Perspective

. 11 min read

Secretary General of NATO and Former Prime Minister of Norway Jens Stoltenberg. Originally published in the HIR Fall 2013 Issue.

To most people the Arctic is a distant realm, almost another world, inhabited by polar bears. They may even think the frigid landmasses and icy seas of the Arctic are irrelevant to daily life farther south.

However, the Arctic is changing rapidly. The melting of the sea ice has thrust the region into the global spotlight as world leaders seek to assess both the environmental threats and economic opportunities of a smaller northern ice cap. Norwegians have long balanced a fierce commitment to environmental protection with our substantial Arctic economic interests, and we are eager to help devise responses to the worrying changes we have all observed.

The Arctic encompasses more than 1 5 million square miles or about 8 percent of the surface of the Earth, equivalent to four times the extent of U.S. territory. But the human residents of this vast area number only about 4 million, and are spread across eight countries—Norway, Russia, the United States, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark.

In the past 100 years, average temperature rise has increased twice as fast in the Arctic as in the world as a whole. One could say that The Arctic is the world's scientific advance warning. The changes are predominantly the result of climate forces and contaminants like C02 and heat-absorbent soot that originate far from the Arctic. And the repercussions are global. A warming Arctic may, for example, affect monsoon weather patterns, and may actually cause extremely cold winters in the United States and the northwestern parts of Europe. Scientists project that ice retraction in the polar areas will coincide with rising sea levels and accelerated global warming.

The Arctic ice melt may also bring opportunities,  such as shorter trade routes and increased economic activity in northern waters that previously were covered by ice. Moreover, recent discoveries of oil, gas, minerals and diamonds in Arctic areas have made the region attractive to countries situated far away. In recent years, I have seen many misleading news headlines proclaiming a "race for Arctic resources," suggesting a Klondike-style rush that could spark tension and conflict. The resources are, however, mainly thought to be found in areas that are under national jurisdiction or in areas where jurisdiction will be clarified once the outer limits of the Arctic states' continental shelf have been determined. Fortunately, there are few unresolved jurisdiction issues in the Arctic, and most players appear committed to firmly established international rules.

Norway: An Arctic Coastal State

The Arctic has a special place in the hearts of Norwegians. The very name of the country is generally thought to mean "the way north." Our affinity with the Arctic comes from geography, history, economics, and cultural heritage—not the least from the legacy of the Polar explorers, like Nansen and Amundsen.

Half of Norway's territory is north of the Arctic Circle. Thanks to the warm North Atlantic Current, or Gulf Stream, living conditions in the Norwegian Arctic are quite different from those at similar latitudes elsewhere.

Norway is also intimately connected to the sea, with long coastlines on the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. Maritime resources have always formed the basis of our national economy and defined the very identity of our northern coastal communities. In 2005, my government renewed the country's tradition of looking northward by declaring the Arctic our most important foreign policy strategic priority. A major recommitment to the region came in 2011 with publication of The High North: Visions and Strategies. This government white paper presents Norway's long-term plan to address the challenges and capitalize on opportunities emerging in the Arctic.

Our overall aims are to enhance knowledge in and about the High North, increase our activity in the region, pursue sustainable economic and social development, strengthen regional cooperation and ensure geopolitical stability and predictability.

Climate Change in the Arctic

The well-documented climate changes in the Arctic give us all reason to worry, because the Arctic climate plays a key role in the global climate. The Arctic snow and ice melt is accelerating, and is occurring at a faster pace than any climate model has predicted. In September 2012, the Arctic sea ice extent dwindled to yet another record annual low, 44 percent below the 1 981-2010 average, and 16 percent below the previous record, set in 2007. The Arctic Ocean is projected to become nearly ice-free in summer in this century, likely in the next 30-40 years. Biodiversity in the Arctic is threatened by the warmer climate and drifting environmental pesticides. Arctic Ocean acidity is higher than previously predicted, and high levels of C02 will jeopardize ocean life. The only solution is to reduce our emissions of C02 as a matter of urgency.

The loss of ice and snow, already so visible in Arctic satellite images, actually speeds warming by increasing the surface absorption of solar energy that previously had been reflected. Ice loss may also dramatically increase the release of methane and C02 from thawing permafrost, and could alter large-scale ocean currents. The melting of the Greenland ice sheet and other parts of the Arctic ice cap is at present contributing over 40 percent of the global sea-level rise of about 3 mm per year. By 2100, global sea level is projected to increase by 1-1.5 meters, or about 3-5 feet. The Arctic ice melt will make a substantial contribution to this. It is the responsibility of the international community to take action to combat the causes of climate change.

Short-lived climate forces, including black carbon (soot) and methane, represent as much as 30-40 percent of climate change caused by human activity. Reductions in these emissions offer a vital opportunity to slow Arctic warming over the next few decades. The member states of the Arctic Council have decided to develop arrangements on actions to achieve black carbon and methane emission reductions in the Arctic. My hope is that such arrangements will provide an opening for more binding cooperation on this issue within the Arctic Council.

As a responsible coastal state, Norway has striven to address the new Arctic challenges while taking advantage of emerging opportunities in a safe and environmentally sound way. Already, 80 percent of ship traffic in the Arctic takes place in waters under Norwegian jurisdiction, much of it related to cautious oil and gas exploration and production. We are working resolutely to make sure the Arctic stays a region of peaceful cooperation and sustainable resource management. We will also continue to work for an international climate agreement intended to halt the warming of the Arctic and the rest of the planet.

Predictable Legal and Political Frameworks

The Arctic is neither a legal void nor a political vacuum. The Law of the Sea forms the legal basis of all activities in the Arctic Ocean—as in the other seas of the world. We share the generally accepted view that existing international law provides a sound and predictable framework for addressing current and foreseeable challenges in the Arctic.

From a global perspective there is every reason to emphasize the high degree of consensus that exists in the Arctic. By signing the Ilulissat Declaration in 2008, the five coastal states, surrounding the Arctic Ocean, confirmed their commitment to the Law of the Sea as the binding legal framework for activities in this maritime area.

In recent years, we have seen a number of Arctic maritime delimitation issues move toward peaceful resolution on the basis of the Law of the Sea. The maritime delimitation treaty between Norway and Russia of 2010, after 40 years of negotiations, is a clear example, as is the more recent breakthrough establishing a maritime delimitation of Danish and Canadian waters in the Lincoln Sea, northwest of Greenland.

Coastal states have also been surveying the outer limits of their continental shelves in accordance with the Ilulissat Declaration. In 2009, Norway became the first Arctic Ocean state to have the outer limits of its continental shelf clarified in final recommendations from the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Other Arctic states have submitted documentation to the commission in support of their continental shelf claims, or are preparing such documentation. There is every reason to expect that the outstanding continental shelf issues in the Arctic will be resolved in an orderly manner.

The prospect of increased economic activity in the Arctic Ocean highlights the importance of clarity when exercising jurisdictional and sovereign rights under the Law of the Sea. For coastal states, a strong presence will be required to exercise their jurisdiction, sovereign rights and authority in a credible, consistent and predictable manner.

The Arctic Council

Although various actors may have conflicting resource interests in the Arctic, all the Arctic states to date have acted in adherence with the Law of the Sea. This international treaty also applies to the activities of actors from outside the region.

I believe that our bigger challenges relate to concerns such as climate change, the environment, and maritime safety as new sailing routes arise along with intensified tourism, and oil and gas activity. To cope, we will need both sound national legislation and international cooperation.

The Arctic Council is the only circumpolar forum for political discussions at government level. I consider it the central body for cooperation on Arctic issues. It is the only one that brings together all the Arctic states (Norway, the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Finland), and representatives of indigenous peoples.

The nature of cooperation in the Arctic Council has changed in step with the region itself. The body was established in 1996 as a forum to promote environmental protection, but has since become the leading forum for cooperation on Arctic issues.

The Arctic Council's comprehensive studies have been of major importance in highlighting the speed and implications of climate change. Furthermore, the council has reported in detail on Arctic shipping, oil and gas activities, ocean management, biodiversity and ocean acidification. It is crucial that the Arctic Council continue to play a leading role in gathering and disseminating information on climate change in the Arctic.

Significantly, the body has also started binding its members to commitments. On the council's initiative, the Arctic states signed a search-and-rescue agreement that entered into force in January 2013. Then, at the Arctic Council's ministerial meeting in May of this year, member states signed an agreement on Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response. The agreements will improve cooperation and contingency planning and preparedness in Arctic waters.

As the sea ice recedes, all eyes will be on the Northeast Passage, a trans-Arctic route that almost halves the sailing distance between some Asian ports and northern Europe. There is a long way to go before the Northeast Passage challenges major existing trade routes, but the number of ships using it increases year by year. In the meantime, we and our Arctic Council partners must continue to give high priority to negotiations in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to develop a safety code for ships operating in polar waters. On the initiative of Norway and Russia, a mandatory vessel reporting system for the Barents Sea region has already been set up under the IMO.

The establishment of a permanent secretariat for the Arctic Council in Tromso, Norway, was an important step in the body's evolution. The secretariat has been up and running since May, when Canada took over the council's chairmanship.

As a sign of the growing interest in Arctic matters, states and organizations have been applying in greater numbers for Arctic Council observer status. China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and in principle the EU were granted permanent observer status at the council's May meeting. Norway worked hard to achieve consensus on admitting the new observers, provided that they fulfilled the Arctic Council's criteria. The observers must be able to contribute to the work of the council while respecting indigenous peoples, local cultures, and traditions; recognizing the sovereign rights of Arctic states; and acknowledging the Law of the Sea as the legal framework for understanding the Arctic.

Marine Management & Sustainable Development

Norway takes an ecosystem- and science-based approach to sustainable resource management. Integrated  management plans are among our most important tools, and our ultimate ambition is a comprehensive management approach that facilitates long-term value creation while safeguarding Arctic ecosystems.

There have been petroleum activities in the Norwegian High North for decades. Exploration and production on the Norwegian continental shelf in the Barents Sea are expected to increase, generating social and economic benefits and contributing to the security of Europe’s energy supply. Because of the warm North Atlantic Current, the Norwegian Barents offers better operating conditions than many other parts of the Arctic. Norway and Norwegian companies, with their state-of-the-art know-how and technologies, are global leaders in operating in harsh environments offshore. Petroleum activities on the Norwegian continental shelf are subject to the highest safety and environmental standards, and we are open to sharing our experiences with others to promote best-practice development.

Regional cooperation is essential to ensure that Arctic industrial progress does not come at the expense of living marine resources. Commercial fisheries in the central Arctic Ocean are not envisaged in the near future, but adjacent waters, and the Barents Sea in particular, are home to some of the world's most abundant fish resources, such as the Northeast Arctic cod.

Fisheries in the Barents Sea are managed by Norway and Russia in close cooperation, within the framework of a joint fisheries commission. The commission bases its decisions on recommendations by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). These recommendations are grounded largely in the findings of Norwegian and Russian scientists working under a joint research program that is reviewed annually. In fact, Norwegian and Russian scientists have been collaborating since the 1950s, and the establishment of the joint fisheries commission was agreed in 1975.

In recent years, this commission has devoted considerable attention to combating illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. As a result, the estimated volume of illegally caught fish in the commission area has dropped from some 100,000 tons in 2005 to close to zero since 2010.

If we go back to 1988 the cod stock was at a low point, and strict measures to rebuild the stock were put in place by Russia and Norway together. Today the cod stock is estimated to be ten times bigger than it was 25 years ago. This development would not have been possible without the close and constructive fisheries cooperation between Russia and Norway. The results are literally being harvested by the fishermen. Just the catch value of the fish resources managed jointly by Russia and Norway corresponds to more than US$2 billion. And it is a tremendous source of food. This year the Barents Sea alone will produce more than 5 billion meals of wild-caught seafood.

People in the Arctic

Arctic inhabitants live in a region rich in natural resources and with a great potential for economic development, but with a harsh climate and long distances between urban centers. The people of the Arctic live far from their national capitals and would gain a lot from better cross-border cooperation and infrastructure.

The Barents Cooperation (consisting of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Iceland and Denmark) has been a particularly innovative way to address a range of cross-boundary issues related to economic growth, environment, education, culture and contact between people in the North.

With the creation of this cooperative system in 1993, a new way of shaping and carrying out foreign policy emerged. People-to-people cooperation is given a central place, and local and regional governments are directly involved.

Recall that during the Cold War this was one of the tensest, most highly militarized regions in the world, with almost no contact over the border between East and West. Now it is a vibrant economic region with fluid cross-border traffic and an unemployment rate of almost zero. The greatest achievement of the Barents Cooperation has been an overall normalization of relations between the Nordic countries and Russia, including ever-growing people-to-people contact. Local and regional activities have provided a form of "soft security," laying a foundation of trust and confidence between neighbors.

In June this year, when the Prime Ministers of the other Barents countries and I met to celebrate the 20th anniversary of this cooperative venture, we agreed that regional economic development would be the natural focus of its continuation. For the good of the people who live in the Arctic, we must enhance cooperation on education, industry and infrastructure.

Visions for the Arctic Region

A peaceful, prosperous and environmentally sound Arctic is in everyone's interest. To achieve it we depend on international cooperation. Our legal framework and political institutions are adequate. What's needed is to further strengthen cross-border cooperation and ensure sustainable use of resources in this fragile, fast-changing part of the world.

I feel confident in pledging that Norway will continue to promote these efforts and remain a responsible, predictable and cooperative partner in the Arctic.