Historical archive

The Arctic: Important for Norway, Important for the world

Historical archive

Published under: Solberg's Government

Publisher: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Article in Harvard International Review, 16 July 2015

Traditionally, travel between Europe and the United States is described as moving "across the pond." However, the shortest distance between our two continents is actually across the North Pole, from Alaska to northern Norway. It is the Arctic Ocean, not the Atlantic, which is the ultimate short cut, writes Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende.

Hitherto, that fact has been of limited interest. Airlines regularly cross the High North to shorten their transit time between the continents. For the rest of us, this geographical fact appears to be a mere piece of trivia. After all, most of the Arctic Ocean is frozen throughout the year. The Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen discovered this as far back as the late 19th century when his ship, the Fram, spent three years drifting in the pack ice from 1893-96.

The Fram, a Norwegian expeditionary ship, stuck in the Arctic ice. Norway has a rich history when it comes to Arctic affairs. Public domain.

But now the climate of the Arctic is changing fast. The seas are warming and the ice is retreating. According to some estimates, the Arctic summer ice cap will completely vanish by the year 2050. This will bring enormous changes and challenges not just to the Artic states, but also to the world.

The melting ice of the Arctic is a barometer for the global warming that may cause unimaginable damage to our planet. We, citizens of the Arctic, can see climate change taking place with our naked eyes. It is obvious that we have to commit to the international cooperation to combat climate change.

As the ice retreats, the Arctic countries will no longer be divided by the ice, but connected by the ocean. The sea will become a highway, not a barrier. It will open up new possibilities for trade and transport; mining and minerals; oil and gas; research and education.

This is of vital importance to Norway. Some 80 percent of our ocean areas are situated north of the Arctic Circle, and almost 90 percent of our export revenues come from sea-based economic activity and resources. We have always been a nation of seafarers and fishermen. The Arctic waters are our natural home.

These new regional opportunities are also important to the other Arctic states, including our neighbors around these cold shores. We all want to seize the benefits of the opening Arctic, but we must do so in a responsible way. Cooperation, not confrontation, is the route we must continue to take. Respect for international law, responsible national management of resources and international cooperation are the keys to peaceful and sustainable development in the region.

A cooperative framework is even more important now, because the retreat of the ice is opening up the region to the world. What happens in the Arctic has impacts outside the Arctic. Even as the world's geopolitical balance shifts further east and south, interest is increasing in the north. More and more countries and organizations take an interest in Arctic developments. This gives those of us in the High North a unique chance to showcase our region, and a unique responsibility to protect it.

It is our vision that the changes in the High North will unite everyone in our region and beyond, rather than divide us. We will do so by working for deeper international cooperation in the High North, by making our own policies a model of sustainable business and development, and by making our region a source of inspiration in the fight against climate change.

The international angle: Preventing conflict, promoting cooperation

The Arctic is an example of the global problems we face, and the potential solutions we can use to address them. It provides an example of the dramatic effects of climate change, but it also shows how international cooperation can provide solutions to international challenges.

For Norway, the High North is not just at the top of the world; it is at the top of our list of foreign-policy priorities. We share the coastline of the Central Arctic Ocean with four other countries: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Russia, and the United States. This shared coastline means shared responsibilities.

The Law of the Sea provides the legal framework for all activities in the Arctic Ocean. This was confirmed in Ilulissat, Greenland in May 2008, when the five coastal states reiterated their commitment to the Law of the Sea and their intention to resolve overlapping claims within that framework. This means that the ocean's legal environment will remain predictable, reliable and firmly anchored in international norms.

We continuously put our commitment to the Law of the Sea into practice. In 2010, Norway and the Russian Federation signed a treaty on maritime delimitation and cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. This agreement settled a dispute stretching back four decades. It eased tensions, boosted cooperation, gave greater legal stability, and lived up to the high principles agreed in the Ilulissat Declaration.

The Arctic circle is demarcated by this globe statue, seen from a ship. As an Arctic nation, Norway has a unique role to play in the region. Photo by Janter, CC SY-BA 3.0

Other issues are also being dealt with through legal channels. The establishment of the outer limits of the continental shelf, which lies 200 nautical miles beyond the baselines, is dealt with by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which is based in New York. Norway was the first Arctic coastal state to receive its recommendation from the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and thus fulfill the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in this respect. The Russian Federation and Denmark have also presented their data to the Commission while Canada and the United States are working on their documentation.

However, Arctic cooperation is more than just the prevention of conflict: it is about promoting deep, mutually beneficial ties through joint efforts. In this regard, the most important forum for discussing issues of common interest is the Arctic Council, which was recently strengthened through the establishment of a secretariat in Tromsø, in Northern Norway.

The work of the Arctic Council is producing tangible results. Its comprehensive reports and studies of climate change in the Arctic have highlighted the speed at which climate change is taking place. Its member states have also signed legally binding agreements on search and rescue cooperation and on Arctic marine oil pollution preparedness and response.

Norway has good working relations with the other Arctic states, and the maritime delimitation agreement with Russia in 2010 was a catalyst for further cooperation. However, the Arctic cannot be viewed in isolation from events elsewhere. Russia's violations of international law in Ukraine have had a negative impact on our relations. In response to these violations, Norway, like the EU and the US, has implemented restrictive measures against Russia, suspended our military cooperation and postponed a number of political contacts. Our message is clear: we will not accept Russia's illegal actions.

However, our message is also clear regarding the necessity of cooperation with our neighbor Russia in certain areas of common interest. Sharing a common border, both countries face challenges that can only be dealt with jointly. The most important ones are search and rescue at sea, management of shared fish stocks, environmental protection, nuclear safety, and Coast Guard and Border Guard activities. We will also continue to encourage people-to-people cooperation across the Norwegian-Russian border.

Norway aims to remain consistent and predictable in our relations to Russia, emphasizing that relations must be based on respect for international law. Consequently, practical cooperation in the north does not contradict our principled reaction to Russia's violations of international law, where we are fully in line with our allies in NATO and partners in the EU.

In April this year, the US will assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. We look forward to the US taking a leadership role on Arctic affairs, as our two countries share the same views on the importance of keeping environmental and climate issues at the top of the agenda in the Arctic Council.

The 8th annual Arctic Council meeting in Kiruna, Sweden. The Arctic Council will become an even more important multilateral organization as the Arctic becomes more accessible. Photo by the US Department of State. Public domain.

As the ice has retreated, new players from outside the Arctic have become more interested in the region. At the Arctic Council's ministerial meeting in 2013, new observer countries far away from the Arctic were granted observer status. The interest from China, India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea to become observers in the Arctic Council reflect how a changing Arctic is relevant also for countries in Asia. The observers contribute with important knowledge about a region that we still are trying to understand.

Norway welcomed the accession of the new observers from both Asia and Europe. This is a logical extension of our policy. We want to see cooperation in the High North, not confrontation or competition. We believe that there will be enough Arctic for everybody, as long as everybody respects international law and the laws of regional states.

The Arctic has become an area for cooperation between Europe, North America and Asia. We want to continue strengthening this trend. The more we know about each other's concerns, the more we can shape shared solutions to shared problems.

Norway's Northern vision: Sustainable welfare for the citizens of the Arctic

The Arctic covers about eight percent of the Earth's surface, about four times the area of all US territories combined. We are not talking about a homogenous region. There is not one Arctic. There are many "Arctics." Because of the North Atlantic Current, temperature and ice conditions in the—mostly ice-free—Norwegian part of the Arctic are vastly different from those of Alaska. Climatic conditions and the amount of human activity vary greatly across the region.

The Arctic holds considerable potential for future generations of Arctic citizens, but we must treat it with care. It is not enough just to use the Arctic; we must use it wisely. That is why Norway aims to promote sustainable business development in the north. We have no wish to see an Arctic bust following an Arctic boom. We want to see sustainable growth.

Our goal is for Northern Norway to become one of the most innovative and knowledge-driven regions of growth in the world. The main attraction of Northern Norway will not only be the Northern Lights, but also northern enlightenment.

The Norwegian Arctic is experiencing a higher rate of economic growth than the rest of the country, and is expecting an export growth of six to seven percent next year. The number of residents with doctoral degrees around the Arctic has doubled in recent years, and this research is increasingly producing innovative solutions with global applications.

Space technology is one area in which the region is already a world leader Norway boasts a space research cluster made up of several research centers in Northern Norway, which provide space services globally. Our aim is to support the growth of knowledge about the north, and of knowledge-based industry in the north.

Knowledge and technology are also important for an environmentally sustainable maritime sector. In the summer, 80 percent of all ship traffic in Arctic waters takes place in Norwegian waters, while in winter the figure rises to 90 percent. That is why Norway is pushing for rules that would subject shipping in the Arctic Ocean to the highest safety and environmental standards. Norway has been a driving force behind the development of a mandatory polar code in the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Adoption of the Code will be an important milestone. Once this is achieved, the member states, and in particular the polar states, must work together to ensure harmonized implementation of the Code.

Another key to sustainable economic growth is responsible resource management. Norway's approach is to study the ecosystem to intensively produce scientific data, so that our decisions are based on up-to-date information. We have developed integrated management plans that set a framework for all aspects of human activity in Norwegian waters.

A good example of this new approach is our management of fish stocks. Our quota decisions are based on scientific data and a responsible, long-term perspective. Our goal is to make sure there will be enough fish in the sea not only for the next year, but also for the next generation. As a result, the cooperation between Norway and Russia on fisheries management in the Barents Sea has been highly successful. These sea areas are among the best managed in the world. From 2013 to 2014 the export value of Norwegian cod and related species increased by 20 percent.

Norway's expertise in energy production powers much of Europe; it can also power development in the Arctic. There have been oil and gas activities in the Norwegian Arctic for decades. We have chosen a gradual approach. Thanks to stringent requirements and strict regulation over the course of many years, the Norwegian oil and gas sector has one of the cleanest environmental footprints in the world. Greenhouse gas emissions from the Norwegian continental shelf are considerably lower than the international average for offshore production. At the same time, we have managed to foster energy development without harming the interests of other crucial industries, such as fisheries.

A liquified natural gas (LNG) tanker crosses a Norwegian fjord. Norway is one of the countries at the forefront of Arctic resource development. Photo by Hannes Grobe, CC BY-SA 3.0

But as the Arctic becomes more accessible, there may be more efforts to extract the energy reserves hidden beneath the surface and feed the demands of a growing planet. The world needs energy. Lack of access to energy is a barrier to development. According to the International Energy Agency, over 1.3 billion people live without access to electricity, and the global demand for energy will increase by 35 to 40 percent over the next 20 years, mostly in developing countries.

The Arctic is home to globally significant oil and gas reserves. However, extracting them will present many technical, ecological, and economic challenges. The Arctic will continue to be an unforgiving and unpredictable environment. Working in such a challenging area will drive the cost of production up, rendering Arctic projects especially vulnerable to world price fluctuations. Thus, Arctic drilling will never be a soft option.

Nonetheless, a large share of the global energy supply will still have to come from fossil fuels for decades. Even while the global economy shifts away from oil, gas will remain an important bridging fuel by reducing emissions without dispensing with them. For that reason, it is safe to assume that Arctic energy will have its day—and in the Arctic summer, a day is a long time.

Sustainable economic development in the north is important. It is also important that we enhance the Arctic Council's cooperation with industry. We therefore welcome the establishment of the Arctic Economic Council. Oftentimes, it is industry that provides us with the most innovative and cost-efficient solutions. Within a sound political and legal framework, industry could be key in ensuring strong economic development that is also environmentally sustainable.

Industries in Northern Norway with significant growth potential include the oil and gas industry and the related supply industry, the maritime sector, the seafood industry, the mineral industry, and tourism and space technology industries. In all of these fields, Norway's ambition is to be a leader and a model, developing and testing innovative solutions. Our goal is to ensure that growth in the Arctic never comes at the expense of the Arctic.

That will be all the more important in the years to come, because the Arctic is changing fast.

Climate change: Rising temperatures, burning issues

The world is warming, but the Arctic is warming faster. Over the last 100 years, temperatures in the Arctic have risen twice as fast as the global average. The effects of climate change are also far more visible there. A relatively slight rise in temperature can change whole landscapes, because most parts of the Arctic are shaped by ice, not rock or earth. Currently, that ice is melting faster than ever. In September 2012, the extent of the Arctic sea ice reached a record low. The Arctic Ocean is projected to become virtually ice-free in this century, perhaps only a few decades from now.

The evidence is clear. The IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) concluded that over the last two decades the Arctic ice sheets have been losing mass. Over the same period, the Arctic sea ice retreated, influencing weather and climate patterns. These developments affect everyone from the High North to the tropics. As the Arctic warms, we can expect monsoon weather patterns to be affected. The melting of the ice in the polar areas will coincide with rising sea levels and accelerated global warming.

Less ice means more access. More access means more human activity. That, in turn, means that we need more cooperation in the Arctic, to make sure that our activities are kept in balance with nature and with one another. That is the role of the Arctic Council, which has produced groundbreaking reports and knowledge about changes in the Arctic climate and environment.

A view of the Esmarkbreen glacier in Svalbard, Norway. Norway's geography will be profoundly affected by climate change, increasing the importance for actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Photo by Paprikastruts, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Arctic Council's research has already played a valuable role in documenting these changes; but it is not enough to document the effects of climate change. We have to find a way to mitigate them. Global warming is not primarily caused by activities in the Arctic, but rather by emissions from all over the world. Governments, multinational organizations, industry, academics, and civil society can all play a part in reducing the emissions that cause global warming, and the effects that climate change itself can bring.

The Arctic can serve in this debate as a powerful inspiration. The Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, which lies halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, is a unique place to study and learn about the climate changes in the Arctic and has hosted several high-ranking foreign visitors in recent years.

The Arctic is more than a place: it is an inspiration. Here, more than anywhere else on Earth, we can already see how much damage global warming has caused, and how little time we have left to tackle it. A visit to Svalbard last summer by the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, and myself, inspired a ministerial-level conference in Paris in March this year. The purpose was to mobilise people by using the example of the Arctic, and to inject new momentum into the international climate negotiations, which will culminate in Paris at the end of the year.

Towards the end of the year, world leaders will meet in Paris with the aim of reaching a new climate agreement. If we are successful the new agreement could prove to be the most important agreement of our time – for the Arctic and for the rest of the world. Hopefully, the Arctic's experience will help spur the world to action.


The changes in the Arctic have challenged our preconceptions and our policies. They have forced us to seek new and innovative ways to cooperate in order to address new dangers. The Arctic states have come together to respond to these changes. Through joint efforts and a common understanding of the situation, we have confronted challenges in diverse areas such as borders and sovereignty, resource management and climate change.

The guiding light for our approach in all these areas is the need for knowledge. If we do not deepen our knowledge, we will never deepen our understanding of the complexity of the Arctic. So what we need most as we seek to manage and develop the changing Arctic is research and science: We need ideas, as well as oceans and ice.

"The great thing in human life is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving."

This statement by the Norwegian polar hero Fridtjof Nansen takes us to the core of Norway's approach to the Arctic. The great thing is to move forwards responsibly, steered by the best knowledge we can gather.