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November 09, 2012
Arctic nations address climate change

The Arctic Council, a coalition of the eight nations that occupy parts of the Arctic, as well as the region’s indigenous occupants are responding to the unprecedented challenge of climate change by progressing from the “soft law guidance” that had characterized the work of the Council to “hard law mechanisms.”  Soft law instruments include guidelines, best practices, and manuals, while the hard law approach involves legally binding agreements.

Those actions and additional work by the Council are described in “New Ways to Respond to Climate Change in the Arctic,” an essay by Timo Koivurova published in Insights, the journal of The American Society of International Law ASIL.  Koivurova is director of The Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law at the University of Lapland and co-chair of the ASIL International Environmental Law Interest Group.

One of the more recent hard law actions is the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic (SAR), which was signed during the May 2011 Council ministerial meeting.  Work is also ongoing on an agreement on marine oil pollution preparedness and response for the Arctic, which is scheduled to be signed at the Council’s May 2013 ministerial meeting. 

Arctic laboratory

Koivurova notes that the effects of climate change are vividly apparent in the Arctic.  The average Arctic temperature has risen twice as fast as in the rest of the world, and 2012 marked the lowest summer sea ice since satellite measurements began in 1979.

“The rise in temperature will have overwhelming repercussions for the region’s ecosystems and render its economic potential more accessible,” writes Koivurova.  “Sea ice retreat and other changes have brought about opportunities for economic development and, in turn, have prompted numerous studies on how the region’s oil and other natural resources could be exploited, its tourism potential increased, and its navigational waterways utilized.”

Policies strengthened

In contrast to the Antarctic, where there are no territorial sovereigns, all land areas in the Arctic are firmly under the sovereignty of Arctic states, notes Koivurova.  Most Arctic waters now fall within their maritime jurisdictions, although the core of the Arctic Ocean remains a part of the high seas.

Until recently, Arctic cooperation involved coordination in areas such as environmental protection and sustainable development.  But, in response to “alarming” changes in climate, the Council recently strengthened the way it functions. 

Specifically, in May 2011, the Council ministers decided to establish a permanent secretariat and adopted the  SAR, the first-ever legally binding instrument.  The SAR is intended to strengthen search and rescue coordination and cooperation efforts in the Arctic by allocating responsibilities to each Arctic state in its own jurisdiction and by establishing procedures for states to cooperate in cases of emergency.  The expected agreement on marine oil pollution preparedness and response for the Arctic will likely apply to the Baltic Sea as well as the Arctic Ocean waters and may also have a few legally nonbinding appendices (e.g., a manual on emergency response).

International treaty?

Koivurova notes that an overarching international treaty has been suggested by some parties—most recently by the Arctic Parliamentarians in their September 2012 annual meeting—to govern the Arctic.  Arctic states have until now rejected this approach, instead firmly endorsing the Arctic Council as the predominant forum for international cooperation.

“Although the Arctic Council is not a treaty-based organization, it seems to have gradually institutionalized itself to the extent that it can act as a foundation for permanent cooperation between various regional stakeholders,” says Koivurova.  “Moreover, the Council has been able to combine its scientific work with soft and hard law mechanisms, a mixture that functions creatively in responding to multi-faceted challenges posed by climate change to the region.”

Click here to read the ASIL Insights essay.

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