Northern lights at Kirkufell, Iceland. CREDIT: NICK PANDEVONIUM
Northern lights at Kirkufell, Iceland. CREDIT: NICK PANDEVONIUM

Towards a Sustainable Arctic

10 May 2021
The Icelandic Chairmanship (2019-2021) in review.

In recent years, the Arctic has truly become the focus point for the international community, attracting attention from all over the world. All eyes are eagerly looking North, trying to predict what the future might hold, because the changes start here. We now know that the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the world and environmental changes in the region affect not only the Arctic population but a much bigger community worldwide. The Arctic is interlinked with the rest of the world and therefore its inhabitants are dependent on close collaboration that stretches across borders. Meaningful cooperation both in the Arctic and on the Arctic, should therefore be at the forefront for us, as we meet the challenges head on and turn them into opportunities for our region.

As we battle with the increasing effects of climate change in the Arctic, melting ice sheet and acidification of Arctic sea water, our cooperation and collaboration is not just important but necessary. We need to come together and listen to our knowledge holders and scientists so that we can shape informed policies that will enable us to continue to live and prosper in a sustainable way in the Arctic. We owe it to our youth to secure and safeguard the Arctic environment and both secure diversify Arctic livelihoods so that they can not only foresee but enjoy a future in our region. During our Chairmanship we have welcomed the increased emphasis on involving young people in the work of the Arctic Council and promoted innovation in the region not least in the field of blue bioeconomy.

Iceland has chaired the Arctic Council for the past two years and as our Chairmanship draws to a close and we prepare to hand the gavel over to the Russian Federation, it is time to reflect on our term in the Chairmanship seat. It is however impossible to look back over those two years without mentioning the Covid-19 pandemic. It had its effects on our Chairmanship just as it has on the rest of the world. Postponing of meetings, events and projects is something we know all well after the past year. Nevertheless, we adapted quickly to the unusual circumstances and have now hosted most of the Chairmanship meetings and events online with great success.

Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson
Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson

Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson has served as Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland since January 2017. As Minister for Foreign Affairs he is responsible for Iceland’s Foreign Policy, including International Development Cooperation, External Trade, Security and Defence. Minister Thordarson has been a member of parliament since 2003 and served as Minister of Health from 2007-2009. He served on the Reykjavik City Council from 1998-2006, and also has an extensive experience from the private sector.

Read more: The Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council

When preparing for our Chairmanship, we decided to call attention to the core message of the Arctic Council, which has remained the same since the signing of the Ottawa Declaration in 1996. Sustainable development and the importance of balancing its three pillars, environmental, social, and economic, has been the focus of the Arctic Council’s work from the very beginning. In a rapidly changing world, we see the importance of remembering our starting point. These three pillars of sustainability were therefore clearly reflected in Iceland’s Chairmanship priorities, which are Arctic Marine Environment, Climate and Green Energy Solutions, People and Communities of the Arctic, and last but not least a Stronger Arctic Council. We believe that these four priority areas serve to highlight some of the most pressing issues facing the circumpolar North today.

Our focus on the Arctic Marine Environment should not have come as a surprise to any. As the Arctic is largely covered by ocean and many Arctic communities rely on ocean-based activities, we have seen changes in the Arctic Marine Environment due to climate change. It is our duty to safeguard the oceans around us for a sustainable future in the region. The Arctic Council Working Groups have in that regard contributed significantly to scientific knowledge and understanding of the Arctic Marine Environment. Seeing the importance of keeping the focus on Arctic marine matters we have, during Iceland’s Chairmanship, built on previous work of the Council and launched a new platform for discussing these issues, called Senior Arctic Officials’ Marine Mechanism (SMM). It is our hope that the SMM becomes an annual gathering of scientists and experts under the auspices of the Arctic Council that will contribute to enhancing circumpolar cooperation while informing SAOs work on the Arctic Marine Environment. Furthermore, we hosted the first international symposium on Plastics in the Arctic and the Sub-Arctic Regions, where leading scientists and experts in the field came together, in an online format, to discuss and share their knowledge and research.

The past two years have been both exciting and challenging. We would have liked to be able to host more of our events and meetings onsite and in person. However, we can be proud of what we have accomplished. Most of our Chairmanship projects are on track and those delayed, will hopefully be continued under Russia’s incoming Chairmanship. Looking on the bright side, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to develop best practices for online cooperation and participation in meetings that has worked well over the past year and will serve the Council going forward. It is now more important than ever before that we, in the Arctic region, continue to use the platform the Arctic Council has provide us with for the past 25 years to strengthen our cooperation in the circumpolar North. By combining Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge to inform policy shaping and decision making we advance together towards a sustainable and prosperous Artic for future generations.

It is now more important than ever before that we, in the Arctic region, continue to use the platform the Arctic Council has provide us with for the past 25 years to strengthen our cooperation in the circumpolar North.