Estonia ready to contribute to global climate fight through Arctic Council if observer application approved, says president

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid (pictured here opening the Estonian parliament on April 4, 2019 in Tallinn) says Estonia’s technical and scientific expertise would allow the country to make important contributions to the Arctic Council as an observer state. (Raigo Pajula/AFP via Getty Images)
Estonia’s long history of polar research, coupled with its current scientific and technological expertise, would allow it to make important contributions to the Arctic Council as an observer, President Kersti Kaljulaid told an international audience on Thursday.

“We, in our way, are seeking to become observers, to become contributors, to work with the scientific community and the political community to make sure that our Arctic is preserved,” Kaljulaid said.

Estonia’s universities have expertise in everything from the development of self-propelled autonomous robots that research marine life cycles, to the resilience of Arctic ecosystems and plant physiology to biodiversity, Kaljulaid said, something that coupled with the country’s technological advances in e-health and clean technology, could help contribute to new solutions for the Arctic and for Arctic communities. 

“We have a lot to offer in the form of scientific cooperation,” she said. “In addition there are about 200 to 300 clean technology enterprises operating in Estonia. We are linking all these elements and bringing them to the table, ready to use our strengths in the best ways as observers on the Arctic Council.”

Kaljulaid’s comments were made during a live-stream event titled “Estonia in the Arctic Council? What can it offer?” organized by Arctic Circle, an Iceland-based non-profit, non-partisan organization that seeks to promote international dialogue on the North. 

The event was moderated by Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, the Arctic Circle’s chariman and the former president of Iceland from 1996-2016, in front of an online audience from 37 different countries in five continents.

Observer status

The Arctic Council is an international forum made up of the world’s eight circumpolar nations and six Arctic Indigenous groups, referred to as permanent participants.

Arctic Council - Quick Facts

Year formed: 1996

Arctic Council Members: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, United States

Permanent Participants: Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Saami Council

Current Chair:  Iceland (2019-2021)

Upcoming Chair:  Russia (2021-2023)

Observers do not participate in the forum’s consensus decisions, but contribute to the Arctic Council through its six working groups which tackle areas ranging from emergency preparedness, to sustainable development and Arctic contaminants.

The Arctic Council has to date approved 13 non-Arctic states, 13 intergovernmental and interparliamentary organizations; and 12 NGOs as observers to the forum’s work.

In order to become an observer, the country, organization or NGO must fulfill a number of requirements, including the recognition of the Arctic states’ sovereignty and respect for the “values, interests, culture and traditions of Arctic Indigenous peoples.”

Observers are also required to demonstrate prior Arctic expertise that could contribute to the Arctic Council’s work, as well as a political and financial ability to support the work of the permanent participants.

The Chinese delegation with other observers at the Arctic Council meeting in Oulu, Finland in October 2017. The Chinese delegation with other observers at the Arctic Council meeting in Oulu, Finland in October 2017. The international forum currently has 13 non-Arctic observer states: China, France, Germany, Korea, India, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. (Linnea Nordström/Arctic Council Secretariat)(Linnea Nordström/Arctic Council Secretariat)

Estonia submitted its application for observer status to the Arctic Council Secretariat and Icelandic Chairmanship on November 9, 2020. 

Relations with Russia

The Arctic Council focuses on environmental protection and sustainable development, with military and security issues explicitly excluded from the forum since its founding.

Russia takes over the rotating Arctic Council chairmanship from Iceland in May, and Kaljulaid fielded several questions at Thursday’s event on how Estonia’s potential observer status might affect its relationship with its biggest neighbor.

Kaljulaid said Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Georgia continue to concern Estonia and the rest of the European Union, but that fora like the Arctic Council were important because they allowed countries to concentrate on shared interests and environmental challenges.

“Estonia, as all European democratic nations, have quite strong questions marks about what Russia is, and wants to be, in the next 10, 20, 30, and 100 years in our global community,” she said.

“But in the Arctic Council, and between the scientists, this is the area where I believe we can keep up and develop a strong grassroots level cooperation.  And as it is with difficult discussions, it’s always good to have also areas and subjects where you can be on a more neutral ground, so definitely the Arctic Council for us is one of these grounds.”

The Russian Federation Arctic Council delegation at the Fairbanks ministerial in 2017. From left to right, Vladimir Barbin, the then senior arctic official for the Russian Federation, and Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s minister of Foreign Affairs. Russia will take over the Arctic Council’s rotating two-year chairmanship from Iceland in May. (Linnea Nordström/Arctic Council Secretariat)

Kaljulaid said Estonia and Russia already cooperate closely on environment, universities and science, something that would only be strengthened if Estonia was granted observer status.

“Indeed, if we have difficulties of opinion, we keep talking to each other,” she said.

“We need to talk to our neighbour, because even if we don’t agree, we need at least to understand each other’s thinking. No problem in the world has been resolved by shying away from a dialogue. And the Arctic Council, for us, is another opportunity for open dialogue.”

Domestic interest

Kaljulaid also stressed the global impacts of Arctic climate change, saying eventual Arctic Council observer status would help raise awareness of the issue in Estonia.

“We still sometimes feel that we are small, and we are not so rich, and that stopping climate change is not in our hands, or not even sometimes our business, if you talk to Estonian people. So by becoming part of this extensive community fighting for the Arctic, fighting for the future of the planet, we also hope to make fighting climate change more understandable for our own people. We are not many, a nation of a million, but we want to contribute.

“We feel that right now we have already the knowledge and experience and the readiness to not only observe, but to actively participate and contribute.”

Decision later this year
Harpa, the Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre, in Iceland. The next Arctic Council ministerial is slated to take place here in May. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

The decision to grant Estonia observer status or not will be made at the Arctic Council ministerial in May.

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Indigenous wildfire knowledge to be key part of new Arctic Council project, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Finnish PM stresses importance of Arctic Council for region’s stability amidst climate change, Yle News

Iceland: Arctic Council’s work on track despite pandemic, now gearing up for 2021 ministerial, says ambassador & SAO, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Arctic Council creates new expert group on nuclear emergencies, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia removes critical voices ahead of Arctic Council chairmanship, claims Indigenous peoples expert, The Independent Barents Observer

United States:  Arctic Policy after the U.S. election, damage control ahead?, Blog by Marc Lanteigne

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying an culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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