Global Review had the pleasure and honour to have an interview with Prof. Timo Koivurova about the Arctic, climate change and its geopolitical implications.
Research professor Timo Koivurova is a director of the Arctic Centre (University of Lapland). He has specialized in various aspects of law and policy applicable in the Arctic and Antarctic region. In 2002, Koivurova’s doctoral dissertation „Environmental impact assessment in the Arctic: a Study of International Legal Norms“ was published by Ashgate. Increasingly, his research work addresses the interplay between different levels of environmental law, legal status of indigenous peoples, law of the sea in the Arctic waters, integrated maritime policy in the EU, the role of law in mitigating/adapting to climate change, the function and role of the Arctic Council in view of its future challenges and the possibilities for an Arctic treaty. He has been involved as an expert in several international processes globally and in the Arctic region and has published on the above-mentioned topics extensively. He is one of the editor-in-chiefs in two Yearbooks: Yearbook of International Environmental Law (Oxford University Press) and Yearbook of Polar Law (Brill)
Global Review: Prof. Koivurova, which legal status has the Arctic in international law? There is an Arctic Council, who claims rights for his members for the Arctic, but other countries like China or even Southkorea also claim that they have the right to develop the Arctic? Who decides who and which country can develop the Arctic or posses its resources and territory? Whom belongs the Arctic?
Prof. Koivurova: Arctic, unlike the Antarctica, is very much dominated by the eight nation-states (US, Russia, Canada, the five Nordic states). They that have full sovereignty over the land space and some maritime areas as well (territorial sea, up to 12 miles from the coast). In addition, all the coastal states to the Arctic waters have established Exclusive economic zones up to 200 nautical miles from their coasts, and are now processing the outermost limits of their continental shelves in the Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf (CLCS).
Yet, with the current speed of sea ice loss in the Arctic Ocean, we are witnessing an emergence of a new Ocean, which used to be blocked by sea ice. We have already lost about 40% of the volume of sea ice in the last 40 years because of climate change warming the region twice the rate as global average. It is projected that we will witness the Arctic Ocean without any sea first time somewhere in summer between 2030-2040. This means that new navigational opportunities emerge in principal for all states and their fleets, also those states that are outside of the region and their fleets. There are enormous spaces for navigation as law of the sea guarantees navigation rights very close to the shore, even in territorial sea, if they are only done “innocently” – a term defined in UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). In addition, there is 2.8 million square kilometer high seas area in Central Arctic Ocean, where in principle states have freedoms to conduct various activities if they are only done with due regard to the rights of others. There will likely be small pockets of deep sea-bed, which belongs to the humankind, after the coastal states have processed the outermost limits of their continental shelves.
So from the resource development viewpoint, it is ultimately a matter for nation-states and their regulations. This does not prevent e.g. China from participating in resource development, as it has, together with Russian companies, but they are not claiming any resource rights for themselves.
Global Review: The first step towards the formation of the Arctic Council occurred in 1991 when eight Arctic countries signed the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). The Ottawa Declaration of 1996 formally established the Arctic Council as a high level intergovernmental forum to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. The Ottawa Declaration named eight members of the Arctic Council: Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, the United States, Sweden and Finland.Which rights have these member states and is there a competition between its members?
Prof. Koivurova: It is important to be clear about the legal status of the Arctic Council. It is not an inter-governmental organization, since it has not been founded on a legal treaty, but a declaration. Yet, the Council has been able to find innovative means to conduct more ambitious governance initiatives: it has via its task-forces catalyzed independent legally binding treaties between the eight Arctic states, on issues such as search and rescue, oil spills preparedness and response and enhancing scientific co-operation. Arctic Council has also given a unique position to indigenous peoples of the region, as they are permanent participants and need to be heard before any decision-making in the Council.
Global Review: What impact will the climate change have on the Arctic economically, militarily and ecologicaly?
Prof. Koivurova: The impact of climate change is felt hardest in the Arctic as it is warming twice the rate as global average. There are already many impacts in the Arctic, e.g. sea-ice melting, Greenland ice sheet melting (and causing global sea-level rise), erosion of coastlines, which used to be covered by fast ice (and now waves can erode the coastlines). In Alaska, some native villages would need to be re-located because of sea invading their old home territories. Floods are getting more extreme in different parts of the Arctic, and ocean is becoming more acidic, then influencing on many marine species. It is difficult to identify all the ecological impacts of climate change because obviously ecosystems will undergo a full transformation if we cannot keep the greenhouse gases levels from rising, as it now seems.
There are also obvious economic impacts for instance from sea-ice retreat, given that the Arctic waters and the Ocean can be used for new economic activities, especially transporting goods and cargo, tourists, conducting fishing, offshore oil and gas exploration etc. For some economic activities, climate change is already a threat. The more we lose the snow and ice, and the later they arrive, this will have a direct impact on whether tourists will come to see these Arctic landscapes, given that this is what they want to see.
There have been persistent media commentary on climate change melting the sea ice, opening the areas for offshore oil and gas exploitation, and thereby causing possible conflicts between states as to who gets to occupy these areas first. This is a misunderstanding since all the coastal states are observing UNCLOS and law of the sea (US, which is not a party to the UNCLOS) in measuring the extent of their continental shelves.
Global Review: China announced its One Belt-One Road(OBOR)-initiative which wants to build a continental and a maritime New Silkroad which also includes a polar silkroad to the Arctic. Therefore China issued a White Paper for the development oft he Arctic? What ist he main content of this White Paper and how other countries react at the perspective that China also wants tob e a key player in the development oft he Arctic?
Prof. Koivurova: China has been a player for quite some time in the Arctic. Its early focus was on scientific research, e.g. establishing its scientific station in Svalbard islands in 2003. Svalbard is under the full sovereignty of Norway but since its status was established via an international treaty back in the 1920’s, also other contracting states have rights in Svalbard. China has also conducted much marine scientific research with its scientific research vessel Xue Long. China was accepted as an observer to the Arctic Council already in 2013, in Kiruna ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, and has gradually intensified its policy and actual presence in the region. For instance, Chinese state enterprises have participated in exploring offshore oil and gas activities in different parts of the Arctic. The first ever Chinese policy paper on the Arctic was just a culmination of many efforts over the years. The White paper identifies an active role for China but within the limits of the rights of Arctic states. As I have argued elsewhere, China wants to see the Arctic from the viewpoint of its global governance, in which China has much stronger role than in the Arctic Council (see at http://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2018/02/13/blog-china-the-arctic-why-the-focus-on-international-law-matters/ )
China is obviously interested in developing Arctic maritime routes, given its dependence on transporting most of its goods via vessels to major markets, and needing to have energy resources transported especially from the Russian Arctic. It evidently wants to diversify the maritime routes via which it transports goods and cargo. Other states have so far welcomed Chinese presence in the Arctic, since it has not challenged their dominating position in the region, and has played by international and national rules in the region.
Global Review: Will different nations develop the Arctic alone or will there be cooperations and alliances? If the later ist he case, which cooperations and alliances already exist today?
Prof. Koivurova: At least so far, the Arctic has been developed very peacefully, even if we are still undergoing the geopolitical tensions between Russia and the Western states, due to the Crimean annexation of Russia. In the Arctic, Russia and USA have been able to participate in many co-operative forms, e.g. concluding these Arctic Council catalyzed legally binding agreements. Last November the five coastal states of the Arctic Ocean and the invited states (China, South-Korea, Japan and Iceland) and the European Union conclude preliminarily an Arctic fisheries agreement, in which they agreed to not allow fisheries for 16 years in order to know how the ecosystems are transforming in the central Arctic Ocean, and whether fish species are with warming waters transferring to the area.
Global Review: The climate change will create new trade routes as the Northern passage. What will this mean for the international trade, icebreaker ships and the container fleets and militarily for the navies? Will this lead tot he creation of new ports, infrastructure and military bases?
Prof. Koivurova: This has already begun since so much sea ice has already melted. Especially the Russian sides Northern Sea Route has been developed as a commercial sea route, but mostly the destinational shipping has increased (natural resources are being exported from the Russian Arctic), not the transit passages. Even if there is potential for especially the North-Eastern sea route, it still witnesses obstables for its development. It is difficult to say how much vessel traffic volumes will increase when the Arctic Ocean starts to be an ocean with only lighter sea-ice that only grows during the winter time. This is not only dependent on climate change but how vessel technology will develop and many other factors.
Global Review: Who will protect the Arctic militarily in case of a military conflict? Can the Arctzic become a case for an NATO intervention if the USA, one oft he member states and Russia or China come into a conflict?
Prof. Koivurova: It is difficult to treat this as an Arctic issue. If there will be military confrontation in the Arctic, it will be part of larger confrontation between e.g. Russia and NATO states, but it is difficult to speculate what that would mean.
Global Review: Which resources and to which estimated amount are in the Arctic? Will they all be exploited and wouldn´t this cause an enviromental disaster?
Prof. Koivurova: There are lots of minerals on the ground and much offshore oil and gas in the Arctic waters. One study counted that off the undiscoverable offshore oil and gas, 13 % of oil and 30 % of gas are located in Arctic offshore. Norway has already developed its oil and gas resources in the Barents Sea, and Russia is drilling oil and gas from its Arctic areas, mostly onshore. There are, however, significant challenges in exploiting offshore oil and gas outside of those marine areas that are outside of the influence of the Gulf stream, and are ice-infested. It is clear that if for some reason it would be possible to commercially exploit Arctic’s oil resources, this would not be a good news for climate change, which is already difficult to contain. Oil spill to take place in ice-infested regions would become an environmental catastrophe so it is good that the Arctic states have already come up with a legally binding agreement to prepare for that possibility.
Global Review: After the Brexit and other seperatist movements there it the fear that Greenland could seperate from Denmark in the case that it gets wealthy because of the expolitation of Arctic resources. How realistic is this scenario?
Prof. Koivurova: There was a lot of hype in 2008-2010 when Greenland’s self-rule (Inuit who enjoy an extremely strong autonomous powers) opened their waters for oil companies, but even if there was estimated potential for finds from those waters, nothing was found. There is also great potential in Greenland for various minerals, including rare earths, but not much has happened so far. It is difficult to see that Greenland would become economically self-sufficient in short term or even mid-term future so to my mind it seems clear that they continue to enjoy an extremely strong self-rule but do not secede from Denmark.
Global Review: Which impact will the development of the Arctic have on the USA, the EU and Russia?
Prof. Koivurova: It depends very much on the time horizon we take. Already now all of these actors have intensified their policy thinking of the Arctic and have become strongly involved in developing their Arctic regions and co-operating with other Arctic states. Even EU has launched a series of policy papers from 2008 onwards as Finland and Sweden are its member states and Iceland and Norway need to abide by many of EU’s regulations, given that they are part of the European Economic Area. It is obvious that for Russia the Arctic is of vast importance, given that of the Arctic, roughly half is Russian territory. It is likely that USA and Russia will invest more heavily on developing their Arctic presence. Russia has already started to establish new military bases in the Arctic, not because of Arctic reasons, but as part of the overall effort by Russia to restore their military status. Currently it seems that the Arctic countries and the EU are all trying to develop the area as a region of peace.
Global Review: If you compare the present and future situation between the Arctic and the Antarcic what are and will be the main similarities and the differences in the status quo and the development of theses polar continents?
Prof. Koivurova: Geopolitically and legally, these areas are poles apart. The Antarctica is a continent surrounded by an ocean whereas the Arctic is an Ocean surrounded by continents. Antarctica’s sovereign claims have been frozen by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and the area is being governed by an international machinery. Arctic is governed by the Arctic states, and international co-ordination is organized via the Arctic Council. Both regions face the problems from general consumption and production patterns. Ozone layer is thinnest above the both polar areas, and various toxic contaminants end up in these polar regions. Climate change is a major concern in both areas, not only for these regions but for the whole world. If only the Greenland ice sheet were to melt fully, it would mean the rise of 7 meters of sea levels worldwide, not to even think of melting of Antarctica’s vast icy continent. In both regions, various economic activities have increased, but fortunately so far states have been proactive in trying to protect these vulnerable environments.
Research Professor, Director | Tutkimusprofessori, johtaja
Arctic Centre | Arktinen keskus
University of Lapland | Lapin yliopisto
+358-40- 551 9522