Les défis de la gouvernance de l'Arctique
Article Index
The Arctic Ocean, with major shipping routes
Location of the Four Major Arctic and Subarctic…

On 2 August 2007, Russians planted their national flag more than 4500 metres deep in glacial waters near the North Pole, claiming Russian sovereignty over the Arctic and its immense fossil fuel reserves. The absence of any governance regime represents a blind alley in a race for energy that will inexorably lead to the fragile Arctic environment's degradation.

Box 1

If you ask a person in the street of almost any country about the Arctic, he or she will generally mention ice, polar bears, Inuit peoples, and perhaps explorers. Few will think of an enormous expanse of water the size of Russia, one of the five great oceans of the world. The Arctic Ocean is the sometimes-forgotten child of the marine world, as the smallest, shallowest, and most remote of the world's oceans. Until recently, it was covered in ice most of the year and inaccessible to the developed world, but also home to hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples. However, it now has increasing significance as a 14-million-square-kilometre region of paramount strategic importance - one undergoing profound change and, perhaps most importantly, one with the capacity to affect the everyday lives of people all around the world.

How? The Arctic Ocean is arguably the single most important and most sensitive regulator of the global climate system, due to its role in regulating albedo (white ice that reflects almost all incoming energy), its critical position in the North Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation system (commonly but incorrectly called the "Gulf Stream"), and its role in buffering changes in the global carbon cycle over long periods of time (WWF 2009). The fastest-changing part of the planet as a result of climate change, the Arctic has warmed at more than twice the global rate over the past few decades. It has already lost 40% of its summer sea ice and perhaps as much as half its thickness, or 80% of its volume, and it is still decreasing fast. It is also a potential source of massive amounts of trapped carbon dioxide: if released through melting, that gas could induce rapid and irreversible warming. A notable arctic ecologist, Dr. Martin Sommerkorn, recently and starkly expressed the risks to me: "If the Arctic is the canary in the coal mine, it's already dead."

Beyond the physical impacts of climate change, the Arctic has become a region of heightened strategic interest for many powerful stakeholders. Considered an empty wilderness with limitless resources in the early nineteenth century, it emerged as a key balancing region for the Cold War superpowers, a periphery where strategic resolve and technology (for example submarine navigation and detection systems) were tested beyond public view. As climate change opens up new parts of the ocean, the Arctic takes on different roles again: a region of opportunity for many parties with differing interests; a previously unreachable source of hydrocarbons; a place where new alliances and approaches may be considered. Whatever the outcomes, the resources of the Arctic Ocean - fish, oil and gas, minerals, transport routes, and possibly others - are attracting interest from around the world.

These disparate factors make managing the Arctic Ocean difficult from a strategic and environmental perspective. The sources of the problems and drivers of change are far away, the solutions inherently complex, and the stakes very high. How, for example, can you develop a conservation plan for polar bears and walrus when you know that they depend upon rapidly disappearing sea ice? How do you develop marine conservation reserves when species are migrating because of climate change? How do you control irresponsible development of oil and gas resources that are out of the world's sight and mind? Perhaps most importantly, how do you protect the Arctic Ocean from warming caused by actions in cities half a world away?

The Governance Conundrum

Environmental governance gaps have been recognized for years by Arctic nations, who launched the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy in 1991, later developing into the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council was established in 1996 as a high-level forum by the governments of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the USA, with a number of indigenous groups as "permanent participants." Its role is to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection. Six expert working groups carry out the Council's scientific work, focusing on such issues as monitoring, assessing and preventing pollution in the Arctic, climate change, biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, emergency preparedness and prevention, in addition to the living conditions of the Arctic residents. A ministerial meeting is held every two years, while senior bureaucrats meet twice each year.

This unique body (which includes indigenous groups with ostensibly but not effectively the same rights as nation-states) has provided a forum for cooperation and exchange on a range of mainly technical issues, with little political interference or interest until a couple of years ago. It has had, perhaps ironically, almost no impact on environmental quality or regional conservation because it lacks decision-making power. The Council's stated role provides for no supra-national authority or policy-development role: in short, it has and imposes no legally binding obligations. Similarly, it is not an operational body - the member states have chosen not to use the Council as the venue for collective commitments to act, preferring that it remain an informal cooperation body. Its working groups are excluded from considering major resource-use arenas, such as fishing, and it has failed to implement effectively its own strategies on conservation. Finally, the Arctic Council has limited participation, excluding countries and other stakeholders with legitimate interests in the region. In spite of these limitations, however, political reality has finally dawned: the record sea ice melt in 2007 (NSIDC 2007) and the growing push to exploit resources coincided with humanity's last great territorial expansion through application of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Under UNCLOS, countries may claim large areas of the "Extended Continental Shelf" (which in the Arctic Ocean means most of the region), a land-grab made much easier by the melting of the arctic sea ice.

Other international forums, such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) or the regional fisheries management bodies, have shown no appetite for taking on the Arctic despite its evident importance. For example, guidelines for commercial vessel construction and operation in icy waters remain voluntary, meaning that a single-hulled, flag of convenience oil tanker can quite legally be driven across the Arctic, something that would be completely illegal in many other regions of the world. Foreign ministers and presidents have finally shown interest: ex-US Vice President Al Gore and French ex-Prime Minister Michel Rocard provided keynote addresses at the Arctic Council Ministerial in Tromsoe in 2009, highlighting the environmental and human security risks of climate change in the Arctic. In April 2009, Hilary Clinton addressed the inaugural Arctic Council/Antarctic Treaty System plenary to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, and very recently, the Russian Prime Minister Putin opened a highly significant Russian-organized Arctic futures conference in Moscow (see Box 1). Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada has also made Arctic sovereignty a national security and identity issue in 2010 - an unprecedented occurrence.

As the ice retreats, the stakes for the surrounding five countries become larger: how can they best secure their (often unmapped) territories? How can they prevent others from using or abusing what is rightfully theirs? How can they simply and justly manage enormous and inhospitable areas that change so rapidly? A steady stream of major strategic policy announcements has flowed from Arctic and non-Arctic players in recent times: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, the USA, the European Union, the Nordic defense organization, NATO, and others. This is unprecedented, and not just for the Arctic. It is an example of rich, stable countries being destabilized by the impacts of global warming. Notably, few of these issued statements discuss the fragility of the environment and ways to manage it.

Despite this sabre-waving, cooperation usually remains the name of the game in the Arctic. There are positive developments on specific issues, such as search and rescue, ship design, and scientific research. Arctic Council member states have chosen, for example, to work within International Maritime Organization processes to secure new regulations improving shipping safety, and have established a Task Force to develop a Search and Rescue Agreement (the first formal international agreement ever developed under Arctic Council auspices once signed, perhaps in 2011). They actively promote (but do not fund) collaborative research on a variety of issues in the region. However, there is little progress on the really important issues, such as defence, navigation rights, fishing, oil and gas, and conservation. One example both illustrates the complexity of the problem and partially motivates the Extended Continental Shelf land-grab: oil and gas.

Oil and Gas: Where Energy SecurityMeets Climate Change

There are already more than 400 documented oil fields in the Arctic, containing about 10% of the world's oil, mostly onshore. A recent study (Gautier et al. 2009) has expanded this figure: about one-third of the remaining oil and gas (mainly gas) on Earth is now thought to lie in and around the Arctic Ocean basin - with most of the resources lying offshore under less than 500 metres of water,

The Deepwater Horizon accident, by comparison, occurred at a depth of 1500m.

and therefore accessible to drilling. The extensive, relatively shallow Arctic continental shelves may constitute the largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on Earth.

Production of oil and gas from the offshore Arctic remains limited, but exploration is booming. The oil industry has poured billions of dollars into exploration in the Canadian Arctic in the past three years, and NunaOil, Greenland's national oil company, expects the number of active offshore licenses in Greenland to double in the next 12 to 18 months. A lease sale in the US Chukchi Sea region in 2008 raised $2.7 billion. The Russian Shtokman gas/condensate field in the Eastern Barents Sea is one of the world's largest prospects, but also one of the most challenging technically, lying in water depths over 300m and sited 600km north of the Kola Peninsula, in waters frequently infested with floating ice.

However, an additional and arguably even more dangerous practice has emerged: the transport of oil via routes through the Arctic Ocean (see Fig. 1). There have been no massive oil spills in the Arctic as yet; but according to the US Minerals Management Service (MMS 2007), the probabilities of a major spill over the lifetime of a block of exploration leases in Alaska are as high as one in five. We do have some knowledge of how bad they might be: the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska occurred in sub-arctic waters, with no ice. Unlike spills in tropical environments, oil in (and near) the Arctic does not break down quickly: there is still a vast amount of oil in near-pristine state buried shallowly beneath the beaches and sea floor of Prince William Sound, off the south coast of Alaska.

Arctic ecosystems are especially vulnerable to catastrophic damage from oil because their fauna rely heavily on oil-soluble fats for metabolism and insulation. Moreover, there are enormous technical difficulties in the clean-up of any potential spill in icy waters: it simply is not possible in the vast majority of Arctic situations (WWF 2007). Skimmers either have major problems in recovering oil or fail to work entirely; burning may work on small spills in open water, but cannot scavenge oil in and underneath ice, or in certain types of ice. Furthermore, dispersants have not been developed sufficiently for arctic conditions and have catastrophic ecological effects: they remove the insulating properties of feathers and fur. An industry and government research programme completed in 2010 (the so-called "JIP," or Joint Industry Programme, financed and undertaken by AGIP KCO, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhilips, Shell, StatoilHydro, and Total, led by SINTEF) is the largestR&D program on oil spill contingency ever initiated. JIP has taken some very small steps in developing new technology in laboratory conditions, but the results, presented to observers at an Arctic Council forum, were widely seen as showing very little progress indeed.

If one conjoins the basic technical difficulties and the highly sensitive nature of arctic ecosystems with huge problems in deploying the necessary equipment, often in dark and stormy conditions - the so-called "response gap,"- the likelihood increases that an Arctic spill would require days or even weeks before clean-up could begin. The amount of boom and dispersant currently warehoused around the Arctic Ocean would be grossly insufficient to deal with even a moderately-sized spill, and it is doubtful that transport options (helicopters, ships, etc.) would be available to reach most of the region. Even around Svalbard, one of the most accessible and well-resourced islands in the Arctic, the range of the few available rescue helicopters is limited. On these grounds, NGOs have publicly and repeatedly called for a moratorium on further oil and gas development in the Arctic until countries could demonstrate that they could effectively clean up oil spills in the region. While the industry has dismissed these calls, it has yet to demonstrate any capacity to clean up a spill. Such positions and attitudes no longer hold water, especially when the industry has failed so spectacularly in "easy" environments with readily available response capacity, such as the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil and Fish Don't Mix

The five Arctic coastal states have all begun leasing large areas for oil and gas exploitation without putting in place the necessary safeguards, in a race for energy security or, in the case of Greenland, for political independence. The industry, inherently international, often works in consortia with unclear accountabilities and different standards. The "trust us" rhetoric pervades both national and corporate communications. But what happens, for example, if a spill in the Russian part of the Barents Sea affects the Norwegian fishing grounds? Or a Beaufort Sea spill affects Canadian Inuit hunting areas? Or a spill occurs close to one of the four disputed boundary regions? How do you reconcile oil and gas exploitation with clear international commitments to protect polar bear habitat that prohibit any signatory from undertaking activities that endanger it?

There are numerous legal instruments for protecting the Arctic marine environment (Koivurova and Molenaar 2009). However, the framework remains incoherent and incomplete. UNCLOS is a very high-level treaty with no operational clauses or agencies, no sanctions, and only one clause, Article 234 (ice-covered waters) specifically applicable to the polar regions. At the more operational level, there are serious gaps that are too large and complex to be filled by simple adjustments of the existing legal and institutional system. The governance framework is too focused on either individual issues or sites to cover the entire Arctic. It does not take into account the reality of ecosystems that cross sectoral and geographic boundaries, or that change over time. It also fails to take into account the cumulative effects of different offshore activities, such as fishing, shipping, and oil and gas.

The lack of a coherent governance regime covering important Arctic fisheries resources has serious potential consequences. Taking the agencies responsible for managing fisheries and simply extending their geographical coverage further south is inappropriate: they have no mechanisms to cope with the Arctic's massive environmental and biological changes. This illustrates the direct consequences of climate change for environmental governance, and reflects the considerable opposition within the Arctic Council to active involvement in fisheries management and conservation: it is considered by most states to be a national issue covered under existing regimes. There is no single Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO) covering the region, a massive expanse including at least eleven Large Marine Ecosystems. Many NGO observers, including Greenpeace, WWF and others, consider the current approach to fisheries exploitation to be "managing based on collapse," only protecting a fishery after it has dwindled or disappeared, as in the case of cod off the Atlantic coast of Canada. No nation presently addresses climate change effects in setting quotas or targets for fishing. Perhaps this state of affairs is not unusual: globally, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that more than a quarter of marine fish stocks are overexploited (19%), depleted (8%), or recovering from depletion (1%), while more than half are fully exploited (FAO 2010)

The Arctic region supports rich fish stocks of significant international economic importance, supplying about 70 percent of the world's total white fish supply and about half the fish eaten in Europe and North America (Fig. 2). The high biological productivity of the Barents Sea (1100 kg/km2, more than four times higher than the productivity of the world's other oceans) arises from the fundamentals of Arctic marine ecology and the inflow of the Gulf Stream. The Barents Sea holds the last of the large cod stocks (the annual legal catch is around 450,000 tonnes, more than half the Atlantic cod available on the global market). Fishing is also big business in the Bering Sea: Alaskan pollock is the world's second most important species, with annual quotas averaging 1 million tonnes, down from almost 3 million tonnes in 2006. These are large catches: in comparison, the world's most-caught fish, the Peruvian anchoveta, leads with about 7.6 million tonnes taken in 2007. The North Sea produces about 2 million tonnes of fish each year, across all species. Illegal fishing remains a large problem in the Arctic, but appears to be declining thanks to policing and better regulation. Fisheries resources are also extremely important to Arctic regional and coastal communities.

Data availability for Arctic fisheries management remains poor, according to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Arctic Fisheries Working Group, and modelling the future behaviour of stocks has just begun. The impacts of climate change on this enormous fish resource are still unknown. While warmer Arctic surface and water temperatures, reductions in sea ice coverage and thickness, reduced salinity, increasing acidification and other changes will certainly affect Arctic marine ecosystems, accurate predictions cannot be made. The composition of these ecosystems will undoubtedly change - qualitatively, quantitatively, spatially and temporally.

The USA has recognized some of these risks: through the North Pacific Management Council, it recently (August 2009) announced a unilateral federal government moratorium on commercial fishing in most of its waters north of the Bering Strait, pending greater understanding of the potential impacts of climate change. This action, however, has not been mirrored by other Arctic coastal states.

Given the pace of change in the Arctic, prospects for coherent and sustainable oceans management appear small, unless an institution emerges with the legal and political mandate to enact protective changes. Rules, especially non-binding ones, are hardly enough to govern the "new sea" emerging from the sea ice.

Interlopers or Stakeholders?

Besides the Arctic Council members, many other states have real interests in the region. China, for example, can save almost half the time and fuel to transport goods to Europe by shipping via the North-East Passage. Europe has both commercial interests (fishing, shipping, oil and gas) and significant stakes in environmental protection. There is, however, currently no venue for discussing their concerns outside the UN General Assembly. Meanwhile, the Arctic "Coastal Five" (USA, Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Norway, and Russia) are closing ranks on the grounds of "collaboration," while excluding other stakeholders and doing little beyond cementing their territorial claims.

We therefore face something of a stalemate that will lead, inevitably, to an ever-decaying Arctic Ocean environment. Without clear leadership or a commonly-agreed agenda, the governance of the region drifts in response to everyday issues, events, and tensions. The simplest and most logical forum for this discussion is the Arctic Council, if the five Arctic coastal states would permit open discussion of these challenges. This could lead to exciting new developments in environmental governance, including formal "state" standing for indigenous peoples, the agreement of common goals for an entire ocean, shared responsibilities for management, and a true stewardship mandate on behalf of humankind that does not infringe national sovereignty. Such an outcome does not seem likely at present; instead, we see heightened tensions arising from nationalist statements and actions and a complete lack of leadership.

Who could lead? The USA (which still has not ratified UNCLOS) has proven unwilling to play a leading role in this debate, and Norway, the most neutral and conciliatory of the Five (and immediate past president of the Arctic Council) has been conspicuously silent for the last year. Canada effectively disqualified itself by making the Arctic a populist nationalist political issue while throwing stones at everyone within range, and Greenland is more focused on independence than regional leadership, even if it had the capacity to pursue the latter. Russia has therefore picked up the baton (perhaps to the shock and chagrin of the other four members) and for the past few months has clearly set the agenda. What direction will the Council now take? Perhaps the Five (USA, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia) might step up and create a new institution driven by powerful common interests, a new form of stewardship and a voice for the Arctic. This would be less desirable than reforming the Arctic Council, but could be the rational solution in today's nationalist Arctic world.

2010 International Conferences Devoted to the Arctic

There are a plethora of conferences discussing the Arctic marine environment and governance, as a result of the growing interest in the region. Some recent arctic conferences include:* Arctic Frontiers Conference, Tromsoe, Norway, January 2010* State of the Arctic Conference, Florida USA, March 2010 * Arctic Leaders Summit, Moscow, April 2010* International Polar Year Oslo Science Conference, Norway, June 2010* Arctic Science Conference: Water - Integrating Health, Habitat and Economy, Alaska September 2010* Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region, Brussels, September 2010* International Arctic forum The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue, Moscow, September 2010* Environmental Security in the Arctic Ocean, Cambridge University, October 2010* Arctic Council Senior Arctic Officials meeting, Faroe Islands, October 2010* International Polar Foundation Arctic Futures Symposium, Brussels, October 2010

The Arctic Ocean, with major shipping routes

Source: Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (2009)
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Location of the Four Major Arctic and Subarctic Marine Fisheries and their Ecosystems

Source: ACIA (2005)
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