Questions and answers about the EU’s role in the Arctic

11.8.2021 13:04

A report ‘Overview of EU actions in the Arctic and their impact’ was published in June 2021. It presents an overview of EU policies, initiatives and projects that are of relevance for the Arctic. The report was written by a team of experts and led by Research Professor Timo Koivurova.

Tutkimusraportin kansi.

Below questions and answers regarding the report, questions are by Lisa König and answers are provided by Timo Koivurova and EU Arctic Policy Expert, Adam Stepien.

1) Do you think the EU is aware of its major impact on the Arctic? Or do you have the feeling the Arctic is often forgotten in the decisions of global players because it seems to be so distance? Should the Artic be considered in every major decision in the future?

Adam Stepien: The discussion within the EU institutions on the Union’s influence and presence in the Arctic has been going on for more than a decade. There is therefore a group of EU officials spread across various EU services who are very well aware of the EU’s impact on the region and knowledgeable about the developments taking places in the Arctic. But Arctic is certainly not a central concern when the general decisions are made. 

The EU influences the Arctic, yes, but there are very few policies or actions that are specifically Arctic-oriented. Most policies that we discuss in our study are actually general policies applicable for whole EU and affecting peoples and environment within and outside Europe. It is not realistic to expect that the Arctic will take centre-stage in these policy developments. There are simply so many other issues to consider. However, it would be important that there is at least awareness of Arctic impacts, and that at least some thought and consideration is given to how the region is affected by EU actions. We do think that EU decision-making processes should always include a question: “How will this influence the EU’s northern periphery and its Arctic neighbourhood?”. Whatever the answer to this question in particular cases, it would allow to identify Arctic stakeholders who should be consulted, introduce mitigation measures if Arctic communities may experience particular impacts, and perhaps even strengthen the EU’s ambition in terms of environmental and climate policies, as the Arctic may suffer more than other parts of the world due to inaction. The region warms two-to-three times faster than the global average and the EU’s share of pollution coming into the Arctic is often higher than its share of global emissions, as the EU is located closer to the Arctic than other major industrialized regions.

Timo Koivurova: In order for this to happen, it is critical that there is general awareness of the EU-Arctic interactions beyond the group of interested and knowledgeable officials. One of the functions of the EU’s own Arctic policy statements has been to make Arctic more visible within the EU itself. That is also one of the goals of our report. Another aim is to give the EU officials an overview of the broad picture of the EU’s Arctic presence. The EU and EU Member States‘ bureaucracies are dealing with myriads of issues. Almost everything that EU does may have some implications for the Arctic. Even those interested in the Arctic usually do not know about the whole range of EU activities. In the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland, we have been dealing with EU’s Arctic policy and activities for over a decade, but it turned out that we do not know everything that is going on. During the preparation of this study, we have learnt for instance about the EU’s contribution to Arctic emergency management, monitoring and response to forest fires, or about the Alaskan and Canadian participation in projects funded by the EU’s cross-border programmes.

2) The EU commission asked for the study themselves to work on a new Artic policy statement: What is the conclusion of the report, what is your advice for the EU?

Timo Koivurova: The study will be one of many inputs into the new EU Arctic policy statement. The Commission carried out broad consultations. Between 2017 and 2019, there was a series of workshops organized – actually co-organized by our team in the Arctic Centre – to brainstorm for possible new areas of EU Arctic engagement. Jari Vilén, the current Finnish Ambassador for Barents and Northern Dimension – at that time in the European Commission – prepared a report on the EU’s Arctic interests. The different EU departments have also their own specific analyses, e.g. regarding space programmes, research or cohesion funding. Thus, the EU officials are actually getting quite a bit of good advice and knowledge from different corners. 

Adam Stepien: From our side, we would like to see the Arctic being more visible in the regulatory impact assessments carried out by the Commission before it proposes new legislation. We encourage the EU to better coordinate and make more sustained, its inputs into the work of the of the Arctic Council working groups. At the moment, this involvement is ad hoc, dependent on topic and not very visible, even though for some aspects of Arctic Council’s work the EU’s inputs are actually quite significant. We recommend to develop the existing dialogue formats between the EU services and the Arctic Indigenous Peoples, so that these interactions are more focused on concrete EU policy developments. 

We also propose a number of specific actions – we have altogether proposed 35 diverse policy options. Just to give a few examples: The EU would benefit from adopting a common goal for black carbon emissions. It would be important from the Arctic perspective that the EU acts on unintentionally released polyester fibres and microplastics originating from the wearing of car tyres and breaks. The EU has already declared willingness to work on these issues in the future and we hope that adding Arctic perspective might encourage action and raise the levels of ambition. We strongly support strengthening of the Interreg Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme, which is one of the flagships of the EU’s Arctic presence and has played the key role in organizing a rather successful cooperation between different EU programmes in the North. We believe that gender perspective should be more strongly visible both in the EU’s Arctic policy and in the EU-funded research. 

3) Should the EU have changed their policies way before and has there already been some damage done in the Arctic that is irreversible?

Timo Koivurova: Our study clearly shows that the EU has quite significant environmental impact on the Arctic. Compared with other major economies, the EU is a forerunner when it comes to climate action, air pollution or policies on plastic, including microplastic, pollution. However, many actions could have been certainly taken earlier and with a greater level of ambition as of course the CO2 pumped by the EU economy into the atmosphere will stay there for hundreds of years. Microplastics have been slowly accumulating in the Arctic marine environment. The air pollution policies, while ambitious, have not yet eliminated many emissions in the EU that ultimately end up in Arctic environment. But the progress in many of these sectors requires some level of global action, as the EU will not adopt measures that seriously undermine its economic position in the global competitive environment.

4) Who else should start thinking about the Artic when taking decisions?

Adam Stepien: Ideally, all major economies – most of them located in northern hemisphere – should consider the implications of the policies, developments and major projects on the Arctic peoples and environment. China, India and Japan are already among observers in the Arctic Council and many non-Arctic states have adopted Arctic policies. One would hope that adding Arctic perspective to the decision-making processes would make policy-makers at least slightly more ambitious and more mindful of the global and long-term effects of their actions or their inaction. Importantly, that is not only true for non-Arctic countries. USA, Canada or Russia, all large Arctic states, rarely consider how their general policies impact the Arctic, of which some of their regions are part. For instance, for long we have observed in these countries awkward dissonance between the often hostile national climate politics and statements of deep concern with regard to climate change impacts within their Arctic regions – as if these two things were disconnected. 


5) Researchers from several countries worked on the report. How important was the impact of the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland on this project?

Timo Koivurova: The study was a joint undertaking and we have consulted our ideas and writing across the international team. It is true that most of the study was written by the researchers from the Arctic Centre and I was leading this work. Moreover, as mentioned, we have been dealing with the EU-Arctic issues for over a decade, so we have naturally acquired certain approach and perspective on these topics. I am therefore certain that ideas from the Arctic Centre are strongly reflected in the study. For us, located in the capital of Lapland, it has been always important that the EU Arctic debate is not only about the North Pole and the Arctic Ocean but also includes the European Arctic and the EU’s own Arctic regions in northern Finland and Sweden. Perhaps these aspects would have been less visible if experts from another institution, located elsewhere or for instance focused exclusively on economic development were to draft this study? However, it is important to underline that our colleagues from Norway and the US have actually dealt with topics that are essential from the perspective of the EU’s Arctic engagement, such as energy, fisheries, maritime shipping or research. It will be their analyses that many EU officials reading our report will surely consider the most important aspects of this study.