Monday 13 May 2013 – This week in Kiruna, Sweden’s most northerly town, the Arctic Council will bring together almost 300 people to discuss the increasing pressures on the Arctic.
High-level international diplomats and delegates from eight Arctic states, representatives of indigenous people, scientists and observers are meeting to mark the end of the two-year Swedish chairmanship of the Arctic Council and to face and debate the challenges created by a rapidly changing climate in the Arctic region.
At the top of the agenda will be the signing of an agreement on oil spill response. Although each of the Arctic states may have independent response plans, currently there is no consistent set of principles to deal with a potentially catastrophic event that could spread beyond territorial boundaries.
The agreement, ‘Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response’, will be signed by the foreign ministers on the Arctic Council including US Secretary of State John Kerry. This is the second legally binding agreement among the Arctic States; the first, signed in 2011, established a framework for search and rescue cooperation between Council member states.
As pressures on the Arctic have increased due to climate change, melt and the consequential possibility of new shipping routes and oil and gas exploitation, questions have been raised as to whether the Arctic Council –chiefly a forum for information sharing—is up to the challenges. By signing this binding policy the Council hopes to demonstrate that it is.
The Arctic Council, which sees itself as a science driven organisation, is a soft law body with policy priorities. However, decisions at all levels are the exclusive right and responsibility of the diplomats representing the eight Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants, known as Permanent Participants.
The Council’s chairmanship is rotational between Arctic State members and while this meeting is concluding Sweden’s turn and beginning Canada’s, it will also see the release of several key scientific reports and ministerial approval of policy recommendations from the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, the Arctic Ocean Review and the Arctic Ocean Acidification assessment. Such reports provide new benchmarks and knowledge about the state of the Arctic environment.
In addition to member states and permanent participants, the Arctic Council has tens of observers. The highly prized observer status can only be achieved when set criteria stipulated by Arctic Council is met. It is however open to non-Arctic states, intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary organisations, and non-government organisations. Discussions at this year’s ministerial meeting will include possible new admissions with 14 countries and organisations, including China, the European Union and Singapore, all vying for observer seats as influence over possible new shipping routes becomes more and more urgent.
The Advisory Committee on Protection of the Seas (ACOPS) is one of the Arctic Council’s current and longstanding, non-government organisation observers. The chairman of ACOPS is SAMS Director Professor Laurence Mee who said:
“Established in 1952, ACOPS is the UK’s oldest marine-focussed NGO. It’s objective and inclusive approach led it to being accepted as an observer on many key international bodies and it has worked with legislators and alongside a number of academic organisations in the UK and abroad.” Professor Mee added that ACOPS was one of the first international bodies to conduct work on the Arctic with specialists from the Russian Federation.
“ACOPS is natural partner for SAMS on its Arctic governance work and we are privileged to attend such a high profile event at a critical moment for the future of the Arctic region.”
Representing ACOPS at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting will be SAMS scientist Dr Tavis Potts.
The six working groups of the Arctic Council will open the event on 14 May making presentations and providing information to the public and the media on the accomplishments of the past two years. The Ministerial Meeting will take place on the morning of 15 May at Kiruna City Hall and can be followed via web stream from the Arctic Council website (see below).
Formed in 1996, the Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum for promoting cooperation and coordination among the Arctic States, Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants. The Council deals with Arctic issues common to all member states and Arctic people, particularly sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.