Ice-Blog: Arctic Economic Council – and the environment?

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DW-bannerI would like to share my thoughts with you on the founding meeting of the Arctic Economic Council, taking place in Canada Sept. 2nd and 3rd. Iqaluit, the capital of the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, is hosting the inaugural meeting of the, group set up to promote commercial development in the Arctic, as climate change makes the region more accessible.

It was in Iqaluit that the first-ever ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council (AC) took place back in 1998. The newly established independent Arctic Economic Council (AEC), with close links to the AC, could prove to be equally influential.

Canada currently holds the rotating presidency of the Arctic Council, an organization linking eight Arctic states and six organizations representing Arctic indigenous peoples. Its self-set tasks include sustainable development, monitoring the Arctic environment, identifying pollution risks and environmental emergency preparedness. But in the race to open the Arctic to increased shipping, oil and gas exploration and mining, the formation of the new Arctic Economic Council (AEC) could see commercial interests gaining the upper hand.

Shipping in icy waters is becoming more common (I. Quaile)
Shipping in icy waters is becoming more common (I. Quaile)
Canada puts business first

Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s Minister for the Environment, the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and the Arctic Council, is presiding over the founding meeting of the AEC. Its creation has been a key project during Canada’s 2013-2015 Arctic Council chairmanship, which Aglukkaq has focused on “development for the people of the North.”

“Our government prioritized the creation of the Arctic Economic Council to facilitate business opportunities, trade, investment and growth in the best interests of Northerners,” said Aglukkaq ahead of the two-day meeting. “Establishing this body is an historic moment for the Arctic Council in its efforts to advance sustainable development in the Arctic. I’m confident that the AEC will be a strong and effective body that will help enhance pan-Arctic economic cooperation for the benefit of communities and people in the Arctic.”

An unwise move for the AC?

But some people believe the AC could be making a mistake by allowing a potentially highly influential business group to grow outside of its own structures. Neil Hamilton, Senior Polar Political Advisor at Greenpeace International, told DW: “By creating an independent organization which answers to no one but has the authority to attend, work within, and manipulate the activities of the Arctic Council and its working Groups, the Arctic Council has severely undermined its own mandate.”

The AEC is being established with the contribution of the Arctic Council, but as an independent body. Representatives of both Councils would meet at regular intervals to discuss the economic development of the Arctic.

Originally, the AEC was envisaged as a circumpolar business forum. It’s since turned into a more formal structure. Each of the member states and each of the council’s indigenous permanent participant organizations was invited to send a maximum of three representatives to the inaugural meeting, where they will discuss the organization, structure and objectives of the AEC. The business representatives attending include CEOs and other high-ranking figures from a range of industries including oil and gas exploration, iron mining, tourism and shipping lines.

In the future, membership will not be limited to these nominations and may accept self-nominations from the Arctic business community.

Arctic ice on the endangered list. (I.Quaile)
Arctic ice on the endangered list. (I.Quaile)
A back-seat for the environment?

Canada says businesses in the Arctic will play a strong role in building a sustainable and economically vibrant future for the region. This will not reassure environment campaigners who have repeatedly attacked the current Canadian administration for its support of environmentally problematic industries such as oil tar sands or fracking, and for its refusal to back international climate agreements. The participation of the Vice-President of Russia’s Rosneft Oil Company Andrey Shishkin will raise eyebrows among those concerned about the possible environmental impact of oil exploration in the High North.

Finland is seeking to chair the AEC, although the group is to be purely business and not government run. In a press release, the country’s Foreign Ministry mentions environment protection but does not appear to give it priority when it outlines the objectives of the new body:

“In the future, the main focus of its work will be on the enhancement of the economic operating conditions of indigenous peoples and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), the reduction of obstacles to trade, the support for sustainable economic operations, and raising of issues the AEC itself considers topical.”

In an AC paper on “facilitating the creation of the Arctic Economic Council,” environmental protection is only listed the last of six objectives, in connection with “maximizing the potential for Arctic economic activities.”

Conservationists are concerned that protecting the environment could take a back seat while companies pressure for fewer restrictions. With the Arctic warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world and melting ice easing access to northern regions, the pace of Arctic development could outrun efforts to ensure environment protection and safety measures with increasing shipping and the risk of accidents or oil spills.

Greenpeace are protesting around the world to save the Arctic. (I.Quaile)
Greenpeace are protesting around the world to save the Arctic. (I.Quaile)

The World Wildlife Fund, which originally supported the group, told journalists the way it had been set up was “opaque and unaccountable”. WWF said it hat been refused permission to observe the meeting.

Greenpeace Arctic policy advisor Hamilton told DW: “The founding document of the Arctic Economic Council sets the frame for a new era of exploitation of the Arctic, without any indication of intent to protect the environment.” At the same time the Arctic Council, which was established to protect the environment, was “negating its prime function.”

Hamilton called on the Arctic Council to accord civil society the same privilege as it appears to be allowing the new economic group, by loosening regulations on granting the role of observer status.

The two-day meeting in Iqaluit ends on Wednesday, September 3rd. In the coming months, the Arctic Council will have to clarify its relation to the new AEC it helped create, and demonstrate how it’s going to reconcile the increasing pressure for commercial activity with avoiding environmental damage.

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Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

Scots-born journalist Irene Quaile works as Correspondent for Environment and Climate Change with Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. She has also worked for German national radio, Radio Netherlands, the BBC and ABC Radio National, Australia. Irene has received several international radio prizes , including a New York International Radio Festivals gold medal and a United Nations gold award for outstanding radio. She has travelled widely to countries including Mongolia, Laos and Tanzania, working on development and environment-related issues. Since 2007 she has been specialising on the Arctic and made trips to the Arctic regions of Scandinavia, Alaska and Greenland, making radio and online features on climate change and its impact on ecosystems and people. The Ice Blog was created during a trip to the Alaskan Arctic in 2008. Read Irene Quaile's articles

One thought on “Ice-Blog: Arctic Economic Council – and the environment?

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    11 September 2014 at 3 h 48 min
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    Climate change is a very real problem that everyone on the planet, all countries need to work together if we are going to cut greenhouse gases. The international community needs to put more pressure on China and India, they are huge offenders against the environment yet what leaves me astounded is how both of those countries keep getting a free pass with nothing but excuses as to why nobody puts any pressure on them which is wrong because climate change is a big problem and again it’s going to take everyone on the planet from all countries to work on this problem together to try and reverse the damage being done to Earth. While research is being done to come up with cleaner and effective other forms of energy right now at the moment there is a change that can be done now and that’s make new cars that run on natural gas because it burns cleaner than gasoline which comes from oil. Also corn based ethanol is a waste because it takes too much energy to create it and it drives up the cost of food a better way would be ethanol from the sugar cane as this is clean energy and it gives off up to 5 times more energy than corn based ethanol. China needs to knock it off with the dirty coal, the smog, all the masks people have to wear because the air is bad and India is just as bad. That polluted air will make itself around the world. There must be a global effort where all countries do their part the best they can, even small changes to start off will make a difference if every country on the planet is working together. The planet can only take so much and man has created a huge mess all around the world. The United States and Canada are capable of making cars that can run on natural gas which again natural gas burns cleaner than oil, but again the big oil companies probably know this and did all they can to prevent this. Why must people all the greed of big oil companies to constantly have their way? Gas prices are so high, the big oil companies are making record profits while the Earth is being loaded with greenhouse gases. I know understand the old saying from the Bible better than I ever did before that money is the root of all evil. All one has to do is look at the greed and selfishness of the big oil companies, they are making people broke, they cause food prices to go up with high prices, all this while wrecking our planet. When will people wake up? Just look at the arctic, things are already messed up and all one can think about is making more money at the expense of the environment. Not only people will suffer but so will animals that live up there too. Leave the arctic alone!

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