Article | Last updated: 21/04/2015
The Arctic Council is the only circumpolar body for political cooperation at government level. It provides a forum for discussion between the eight Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and USA) and representatives of Arctic indigenous peoples in these countries on issues of common interest. The Council promotes sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.
The scientific work of the Arctic Council has been strengthened considerably over the years. The Arctic Council has presented a number of reports, for example a report on climate change in the Arctic that provided important input to international work on climate-related issues. The Council’s international influence and importance has grown significantly in recent years. An administrative secretariat for the Arctic Council was established in 2013 and is based in Tromsø.
Changes in the Arctic are creating both challenges and opportunities. Rising temperatures in the Arctic are reducing the extent of the sea ice. This is opening up new opportunities for commercial activities such as shipping and oil and gas production. It is important to find the right balance between exploiting the new opportunities and taking environmental considerations properly into account. We need to adapt sustainably to the climate change that is already taking place, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These issues are high up on the Arctic Council’s agenda.
The Chairmanship of the Arctic Council rotates between the eight Arctic member states and normally lasts for two years. Norway last held the chairmanship in 2007–09. It is the Arctic Council’s Ministerial Meeting that decides on the programmes and projects to be carried out under the Council. The Ministerial Meeting is held every other year. Senior Arctic Officials’ meetings are held between the ministerial meetings, and the work of the Council is organised under the following six working groups:
- Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP)
- Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP)
- Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF)
- Emergency Prevention, Preparedness, and Response (EPPR)
- Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME)
- Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG)
The work of the Arctic Council has produced tangible results. Pollution has been an important issue ever since the Council was established, and pollution prevention was the main focus during the first decade of Arctic cooperation. Despite the fact that the Arctic is a long way from major industrial areas, there were found to be unacceptably high levels of several persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals, which are transported by air and ocean currents from areas further south. This remains a significant problem.
The second decade of Arctic cooperation was dominated by the issue of climate change. The Council carried out comprehensive studies which showed that observed changes in the Arctic are the first signs of change that will also affect the rest of the world. The most important thing we can do to slow down change in the Arctic is to reduce global CO2 emissions. It is estimated that up to 40 % of the warming in the Arctic is caused by short-lived drivers of climate change. Cutting emissions of these gases will give rapid results and is a priority for the Arctic Council. Another important issue is increasing knowledge about the impacts of ocean acidification. More recently, the Council has turned its attention to the question of adaptation to climate change.
The Arctic Council is also giving greater priority to promoting business activity. In autumn 2014, the Arctic Economic Council was established. It is intended to provide a framework for dialogue between the Arctic Council and the business sector, with a view to moving economic development higher up the agenda in the Arctic cooperation.
Cooperation under the Arctic Council is not binding under international law. However, two legally binding agreements have been drawn up under the Council. The first of these was the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement. Signed in 2011, it establishes a framework for legally binding search and rescue cooperation between the member states of the Arctic Council. The second was the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, signed by the Arctic states at the Ministerial Meeting in 2013.
In recent years, as the Council’s international influence and importance has grown, more countries have been granted observer status. Norway considers cooperation with the observers to be important as a way of increasing awareness of change in the Arctic. It also gives countries outside the Arctic more insight into our regional cooperation, which in a broad range of areas is based on respect for the Law of the Sea. Moreover, the Arctic Council benefits considerably from the knowledge and expertise the observers bring to its work. Norway has established Arctic Frontiers Plus as a forum for strengthening dialogue between the member states, the indigenous peoples’ organisations and the observers to the Arctic Council.