The Arctic: A microcosm of climate change

Written by Karmenu Vella on 9 July 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

With the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, our lives depend on the well-being of this region, but its importance for the EU is also strategic, writes Karmenu Vella

Photo credit: Karmenu Vella


If there is one place in the world where climate change is plainly visible, it’s the Arctic. The region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.

The impacts of these changes are felt around the world: rising sea levels, changes in climate and precipitation patterns, increasingly severe weather events, and loss of fish stocks, birds and marine mammals.

Our lives depend on the well-being of the Arctic, but the region’s importance for the European Union is also strategic. Our security and prosperity are at stake.

The Arctic lies at the intersection of three continents, and what happens above the polar circle impacts the whole of Europe and the world. The Arctic is high on the European agenda.


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Three years ago, the European Union updated its Arctic policy. Since the adoption of a ‘Communication on an integrated European Union Policy for the Arctic’ in 2016, the Arctic has undergone considerable changes.

New Arctic actors like China have appeared, the ever-more realistic prospect of a commercial Arctic Sea route brings exciting new economic prospects, but also environmental threats and, most importantly, the acceleration of climate change has a profound impact on the region.

The EU’s vision for the Arctic is that of a safe, secure, sustainable and prosperous region. The EU is taking decisive steps to put these aspirations into practice.

On climate change, the EU is fully committed to the Paris Agreement and continues to work hard with our international partners to deliver on its objectives.

The effects of global warming are being felt first in the Arctic and the impacts are more severe in this region than in most of the rest of the world. In this context, offshore oil and gas extraction is a particularly sensitive issue in the region.

When it comes to environmental challenges, reducing air pollution such as black carbon emissions affecting the Arctic and addressing the increasing problem of marine litter and micro-plastics are high on our list of priorities.

The EU’s environmental rules also have a positive impact on the Arctic. It reduces pollution and marine litter that would end up in the Arctic and it protects the routes taken by Arctic migratory birds, for example.

“The Arctic lies at the intersection of three continents, and what happens above the polar circle impacts the whole of Europe and the world”

By taking a leading role in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, the EU could make a significant difference to reducing these threats to the Arctic. We are also looking for innovative and sustainable ways to invest in the Arctic.

That means making the most of the region’s natural characteristics, respecting its fragile environment and benefitting its people. International cooperation is key to ensure the EU’s vision of a sustainable Arctic.

So far, the Arctic story has been one of constructive cooperation. That is not least due to the work of the Arctic Council.

While not a full member, the European Union is nevertheless strongly involved in its work and stands ready to continue the very beneficial cooperation that has developed in recent years.

International cooperation in the Arctic will depend on credible and lasting commitments and the EU will lead by example.

A case in point of what we can achieve if we work together is the Arctic High Seas Fisheries Agreement to prevent unregulated high seas fishing in the Arctic Ocean.

It was signed by the EU and nine major fisheries nations in Greenland on 3 October 2018. For the first time, the international community is taking a precautionary approach to managing ocean resources.

As one of the first parties, the European Union already ratified the agreement earlier this year. Once ratified by all parties, this agreement will put into place a moratorium on commercial fisheries for at least 16 years.

“The e­ffects of global warming are being felt first in the Arctic and the impacts are more severe in this region than in most of the rest of the world”

At a time where global multilateralism is under pressure, this agreement also confirms that where there is a will, there is a way.

That big and small powers can work together on important joint agendas to serve the common good. 2019 will be an important year for the EU’s Arctic policy.

To assess what our future Arctic policy should and could look like, discussions will start at the EU Arctic Forum, organised by the European Union and Sweden in Umeå on 3-4 October 2019.

We will build on the achievements of the EU Arctic policy of recent years. We will provide a strategic outlook for years to come and explore common Arctic solutions for innovative sustainable development.

The focus will lie on international cooperation, the climate-environment nexus, sustainable investments and connecting the Arctic.

A broad range of Arctic stakeholders representing governments, international organisations, civil society, industry, research, indigenous and local communities will feed into the discussion.

The EU’s Arctic policy wants to promote and support sustainable growth benefiting the people from the Arctic. However, it also acknowledges that the background is one of dramatic transformations that are taking place in the region.

There can be no sustainable growth in an Arctic region that is devastated by the consequences of climate change. We are convinced that the EU Arctic Forum is a unique opportunity to create a new momentum for stronger global action on and for the Arctic.

About the author

Karmenu Vella is European Commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries

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