Cooperation the focus as Arctic Council chair transfers to Russia

Delegates for the Arctic Council gave their support to Russia as the nation assumes the chair of a council driven to tackle climate change, to uplift Indigenous voices in decision-making and protect the health of the Arctic.

'Russia is committed to close and constructive engagement' says incoming chair

Ministers and Permanent Participants pose for a group photo at the end of the 12th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Iceland. (Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Gunnar Vigfússon)

Russia has now officially assumed the role of chair of the Arctic Council.

After receiving the chair from Iceland, Russia will stay in the position until 2023, spending the next two years at the head of the group of circumpolar nations with a focus on responsible governance and sustainability in the Arctic. 

The council also includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States, as well as a number of Indigenous permanent participants, including the Inuit Circumpolar Council and Gwich'in Council International.

"We believe that the key to a greater economic potential of the polar region is a comfortable environment for investment," said Russia's foreign affairs minister and chair of the Arctic Council, Sergey Lavrov, in a translation.

He said economic development should be done "with high environmental standards and with respect for the traditional way of life of the local population."

Lavrov said the business community must "demonstrate social responsibility and work to strengthen relations with the region's Indigenous peoples."

Icelandic Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development Cooperation Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson signing the Reykjavik Declaration outlining the work Iceland has done over the past two years and the future commitments of the Arctic Council. (Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Gunnar Vigfússon)

During a week of briefings before the transfer, Arctic countries and councils reviewed the work accomplished over the past two years.

Climate change a real threat

During four briefings, Iceland presented its key focuses, including climate change in the Arctic and its effect on the health of the Arctic people, the future of shipping in the Arctic, and current and future projects in communities.

Groups within the Arctic Council hold consensus that climate change is a real threat and a large factor behind many of the problems the Arctic is facing today, because the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the world, according to a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Icelandic Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development Cooperation Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson hands the Arctic Council gavel to Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov signifying the passing of the Arctic Council chairmanship. Lavrov will hold the chair until 2023. (Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Gunnar Vigfússon)

There is now less snow cover, leading to warmer summers and dryer surfaces. Increased lightning strikes raise the risk of wildfires.

Although Arctic states generate just 10 per cent of carbon emissions, their proximity to the Arctic means that they are responsible for 30 per cent of carbon warming effects in the region. But, when it comes to reduction, the Arctic States are on track to meet their goal of reducing emissions by 25 to 33 per cent from 2013 levels by 2025.

Methane emissions, however, are predicted to increase by two per cent and will keep increasing. Sea levels are rising as more of the Arctic melts, increasing coastal erosion and bringing a raised risk of flooding, avalanches and landslides.

The Arctic Council also found that more reindeer are dying, seals are thinner, and there are more worms in fish and sea mammals. Pollutants that are slow to degrade and persist in the environment are affecting traditional diets in Indigenous populations.

Highlighting Indigenous projects and solutions

Six Indigenous groups also presented reports on projects they lead, such as Local 2 Global, which has stretched over multiple chairmanships.

The hope was to host in-person knowledge exchanges between different bodies dealing with suicide prevention and the wellbeing of Arctic youth, but they instead had to be hosted online. The plan is to do an in-person tour across the North later next year.

Members of the Saami Council at the 12th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting. One of the projects highlighted in the four briefing to media and other observers was the Kola Waste Project, an initiative to help clean up garbage from remote Saami communities. (Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Gunnar Vigfússon)

Old Crow, Yukon, was showcased for its success with a solar panel farm. This summer will be the first time in 50 years that the community will shut off its diesel generator.

There was also a presentation on the ongoing Kola waste project, an initiative to help clean up garbage from remote Saami communities in Scandinavia.

The future of the Arctic's waterway

Over the past two years, the Arctic Council has also focused on addressing increased shipping traffic now that more water is opening due to climate change.

Just recently, they established the Senior Arctic Officials Marine Mechanism to bring together experts to discuss marine matters and stewardship.

An action plan was also approved to address the increasing amount of marine litter and the Arctic Council's Working Group Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response has been expanding training on how to best tackle emergencies like oil spills or search and rescues in the Arctic.

The Arctic Council also adopted its first strategic plan, stretching to 2030. It lays out broad goals along with direct steps the council will take to address three main priorities: environmental protection, sustainable social and economic development and strengthening the Arctic Council. 

"I am convinced that this strategic plan will guide the shared efforts of the Arctic States and the Permanent Participants in improving and strengthening the work of the Council over the next decade," said Icelandic Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development Cooperation Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson.

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov hosted a bilateral meeting to discuss each other's concerns about military presence in the Arctic. (Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Sigurjón Ragnar)

What to expect from the Arctic Council in the next two years

The theme of the past four days seemed to be cooperation. Every Arctic state and permanent participant mentioned the need to cooperate at least once in their closing speeches.

And during his closing remarks at the ministerial meeting on Thursday, Lavrov assured his fellow ministers that it's one of his top priorities as well.

"We are convinced that 'the spirit of cooperation' inherent in our organization will help to strengthen trust and mutual understanding in the region as a whole."

Members of the press questioned Lavrov's attempt to incorporate military issues into Arctic Council discussions, but he said he only wants to bring back what existed in the past when the chiefs of staff of each Arctic state would get together to look at marine safety and security, disaster relief, and search and rescue. 

"We have had this practice in place and we are not suggesting anything new." 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lavrov held a bilateral meeting on Wednesday outside of the Arctic Council to discuss each other's concerns about military presence in the Arctic.

Lavrov spoke, both during his closing remarks and at the news conference following the event, on the importance of developing the Arctic, "all with being very careful towards the environment."


Alice Twa


Alice Twa is a born and raised Yellowknifer. She is currently working at CBC North before heading to journalism school in the fall of 2021.


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