UNEPGEO-2000 Next: Policy overview - Antarctic -->
Previous: Common policy instruments 
Chapter Three: Policy Responses - The polar regions

Policy overview - Arctic

Current situation

Cooperation among the eight Arctic countries (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States) was initiated by Finland in 1989 and adopted as the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) by a declaration of the First Ministerial Conference on the Protection of the Arctic Environment, held in Rovaniemi, Finland, in 1991. The declaration set out a joint Action Plan in which the Arctic Eight undertook to cooperate in scientific research to specify sources, pathways, sinks and effects of pollution, as well as to share data. Priority was given to pollution by POPs, oil, heavy metals, radioactivity and acidification. Moreover, the Arctic countries agreed to assess potential environmental impacts of development activities and to implement measures to control pollutants and reduce their adverse effects on the Arctic environment. The AEPS included special reference to accommodating the traditional and cultural needs, values and practices of local populations and indigenous peoples (AEPS 1991).

The AEPS also established a number of cooperative programmes:

These programmes reported to the Ministers of Environment of the Arctic countries approximately every two years. The Ministers then identified priority areas for further action. Four Ministerial conferences were held under the AEPS framework with the final conference in Alta, Norway, in June 1997.

 MEAs affecting the Arctic

Many MEAs are as relevant to the Arctic as they are to more temperate regions. In addition, there are unique problems that need to be addressed through specific provisions of international instruments or through international organizations. MEAs of particular importance to the Arctic are:

*  The 1979 UN Economic Commission for Europe's Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) and its protocols, ratified by all Arctic countries. The objective is to prevent, reduce and control transboundary air pollution from existing and new sources. The new protocols on heavy metals and POPs, signed in Århus in June 1998, are of special significance.
*  The 1991 Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (the Espoo Convention). Aimed at preventing, reducing and controlling significant adverse transboundary environmental impacts, it obliges parties to conduct EIAs on proposed activities that may have such impacts. The Convention covers all land-based sources (except for POPs) but is limited to transboundary effects. It provides for notification but only through self-assessment. All the Arctic countries are eligible to become parties to Espoo but only two of them, Norway and Sweden, have ratified it.
*  The 1992 Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic up-dates and combines two previous agreements: the 1972 Oslo Convention (dumping from ships and aircraft) and the 1974 Paris Convention (land-based sources). This agreement introduced the precautionary and polluter pays principles into environmental protection in the region but it covers only some Arctic areas and it does not specifically address coastal development.

The only Arctic-specific MEA is the 1973 Agreement on Conservation of Polar Bears. However, the 1957 Interim Convention on Conservation of North Pacific Fur Seals and its protocols also cover the Arctic, and the 1995 Waterbirds Agreement under the Bonn Convention covers a large Arctic segment.


The programmes of the AEPS have now been subsumed under the Arctic Council - a high-level forum established by the Arctic Eight under a declaration signed in Ottawa in September 1996. The Arctic Council has provided a wider means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states, involving indigenous communities and other inhabitants, particularly on sustainable development and environmental protection issues. In the Arctic Council, the category of Permanent Participants provides for active participation and full consultation with indigenous representatives. The Council has a complementary role in nurturing regional identity. Indeed, the Arctic Council Declaration takes a wider view on regional co-operation than was possible under the AEPS.

Sub-regional cooperation also began in the 1990s, building on and reinforcing earlier bilateral contacts. For example, the Barents Euro-Arctic Region (BEAR), established under the 1993 Kirkenes Declaration, focuses on the environment and operates at two levels - between the governments of Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden, as well as between the eight northernmost counties and/or provinces in these countries (Kirkenes Declaration 1993). The BEAR Regional Council is comprised of representatives from local government and includes a Saami representative. A similar concept of institutionalizing bilateral dialogue originated in 1991 when the Northern Forum, involving regional authorities and also operating with an environmental agenda, was established in Anchorage (Nordic Council of Ministers 1995).

Cooperation amongst groups of indigenous peoples is now organized at sub-regional level - for example, through the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and the Saami Council - and at regional level through the Arctic Leaders' Summit.

There is also international cooperation between professional groups. For example, the International Arctic Science Committee, composed of scientific organizations in the countries that conduct research in the Arctic, was founded in 1990, with the primary goal of coordinating research (Nordic Council of Ministers 1995). Organizations such as the Nordic Council and the Standing Committee of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region, established in 1993, have also shown an interest in Arctic environmental cooperation (Haarde 1997).

Policy trends

The end of the 1990s may signal the start of consolidation leading to even more intense environmental cooperation. Several governments, of Nordic countries in particular, have recently started a thorough re-examination of their northern policies. The new initiatives are aimed at:

Unlike AEPS, which focused on 'threats to the Arctic environment and the impact of pollution on fragile Arctic ecosystems', the Arctic Council Declaration considers the environment in a much wider context. Formulating a proper relationship between sustainable development and environmental protection has emerged as a key policy requirement.

Although there has already been some cooperation in relation to the Barents area (Schram Stokke and Tunander 1994), realizing the economic potential of this sub-region requires the integration of environmental concerns into energy production, forestry, transport, industry, natural resource exploitation and land-use planning. The scale of the environmental actions needed and the severe economic problems facing the Russian Federation, however, mean that financial resources need to be found to implement projects (Ojala 1997).

The closer involvement of the European Union in Arctic cooperation, creating the Union's 'northern dimension' (Heininin and Langlais 1997), will be taken into consideration in the preparation of the European Union's Sixth Environmental Programme. This cooperation will extend the provision of 2000-06 funding through the next round of the TACIS, PHARE and Interreg programmes (Lipponen 1997).

Barriers to progress

For some, especially the major states, Arctic issues are largely peripheral to domestic politics and the economy. This has resulted in an inability or unwillingness, or both, to pay much attention to the problems of the Arctic and its environment, not least in the allocation of funds. There is no agreement on funding at the international level. Cooperative activities, and especially the hosting of Arctic programme secretariats, depend on voluntary contributions of the participating countries.

There are also more specific problems related to particular aspects of environmental cooperation. For example, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme had problems in accessing sources of information on pollution because a number of national institutions were reluctant to provide the necessary raw data, often on grounds of security. Some agencies preferred to provide already interpreted data, and others failed to respond at all. Despite a political commitment within AEPS to provide the data, it was impossible to enforce this. Nevertheless, the AEPS produced valuable basic studies of ecosystem functioning, and provided a starting point for Arctic decision-makers to create further policy measures for environmental protection, now within the ambit of the Arctic Council.

Within its wide policy embrace, the Arctic Council has defined certain 'no-go' issues. For instance, although the United States, in a mid-1994 inter-agency review of Arctic policy, listed environmental protection as the top priority and simultaneously downgraded national security and defence considerations, freedom of navigation remains the strategic military interest of the US Navy in Arctic waters, particularly for submarine operations (Griffiths 1999). Environmental protection related to military activity in the Arctic is dealt with under separate arrangements among individual states, such as the trilateral military environmental cooperation between Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States, entered into in September 1996 (AMEX 1996). The separation of security from other issues in the Arctic is a characteristic of Arctic collaboration. Whilst this may be seen by some as an important precondition for successful cooperation, others may see it as a valid cause for stalemate on particular issues.

UNEPGEO-2000 Next: Policy overview - Antarctic -->
Previous: Common policy instruments