By K. Joseph Spears

Global concentrations of carbon dioxide have now have reached a consistent level of 400 parts per million (ppm) which is seen as the point at which even if carbon emissions were stopped today, it would take decades for the global concentration of CO2 to fall below 400 ppm. The implication is that the Arctic Ocean Basin will continue to see rising temperatures and diminishing sea-ice, leading to more marine and economic activity in the region as sea-ice concentrations decrease. A clear example of this is the historic voyage of Crystal Serenity, a 1,000-passenger non ice-strengthened cruise ship this past summer.

Canada’s Arctic policy is based on the Arctic as “a stable, rules-based region with clearly defined boundaries, dynamic economic growth and trade, vibrant Northern communities, and healthy and productive ecosystems.” While a straightforward policy statement, as a semi-enclosed sea, the Arctic Ocean Basin requires cooperation amongst the Arctic states and those non-Arctic nations that see the region as both an international shipping route and a basket of resources.

At a March gathering in Washington, The United States and Canada issued a joint statement on the Arctic. It broadly stated:

“They emphasize and embrace the special relationship between the two countries and their history of close collaboration on energy development, environmental protection, and Arctic leadership, including through science-based steps to protect the Arctic and its peoples. Canada and the U.S. will continue to respect and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples in all climate change decision making.” – See more at: pm.gc.ca/eng/news/2016/03/10/us-canada-joint-statement-climate-energy-and-Arctic-leadership

This Joint Statement has largely been viewed as an alignment of U.S. and Canadian interests in the Arctic. The Statement also looked at low impact shipping corridors, abundant fish, and a science-based approach to oil and gas development, and lays the groundwork for years of future bilateral work and through the Arctic Council. As we move more away from the militarization issue and focus on sustainable commercial development in the Arctic, Canada has set out some broad issues on climate change and sustainable shipping which must now become the subject of hard work to implement. This takes funding and sustained engagement and political leadership moving forward both domestically and internationally in the coming years.

A key component of Arctic interaction is the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council was founded two decades ago under Canada’s far-sighted leadership and includes the countries of Iceland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Russia and the U.S., along with twelve additional observer countries that include China and India. In addition, six organizations representing Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants are permanent participants. This makes the Arctic Council a unique international multilateral organization.

The United States’ Chairmanship of the Arctic Council is drawing to a close. The U.S. has worked hard to maintain a dialogue and cooperation on Arctic issues with Russia, made more difficult in light of increasing Russian military assertiveness. Moscow hosted a major Arctic conference on international cooperation in the Arctic on October 12 and 13, an event organized by the Russian International Affairs Council with support from the Russian Foreign Ministry. Contrary to expectations, climate scientists and politicians praised international Arctic conservation efforts at the conference, amidst signs that relations between Russia and the western world are undergoing a crisis that some say is beginning to approach the days of the Cold War.

The Arctic Council has just reached its 20th anniversary and Finland will assume its two-year rotating chairmanship position in May 2017. Some call for the Arctic Council to address more security-based issues in the region rather than the sustainable development, scientific and environmental and safety concerns which have been the focus of this organization over the last two decades.

One concern is the increasing number of observer nations wanting to have an oar in the water on Arctic issues. It is seen by some as diluting the ability of the organization to address practical and complex Arctic issues in a timely matter. Nonetheless, successful international agreements have been reached on search and rescue and marine pollution response. Black Carbon from shipping air emissions is emerging as a pressing issue.

Finland is poised to take over the chairmanship at a very delicate time in the Arctic Council’s history. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö has earlier suggested that during its two-year term at the helm of the Council, Finland could thaw the world’s political situation by hosting a summit – with the leaders of Russia and the U.S. in attendance. Finland will in any case assume a key and vital position as head of the Council to ensure Arctic cooperation continues. Finland has a long history of interacting with Russia and, building on the work done by the United States to thaw Arctic relations, its deep understanding will become key in the coming years to maintain Arctic cooperation. “Finland can help to ensure that nations such as the United States and Russia continue their positive dialogue. The Arctic Council is one-of-a-kind in that we identify our common interests and take action together to act on their behalf,” comments David Benton of the United States Arctic Research Commission.

An important development we have been seeing recently is a thawing of Canada-Russian Arctic relations. The thawing of relations with Russia is a major shift from the position of the previous government which restricted Canada’s access to Russia in the region and boycotted an Arctic Council working group because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A joint scientific conference is going to be held in Ottawa with Russian scientists attending. The importance of the Arctic Council and Canada’s view of the Arctic was the subject of a recent speech entitled The Arctic Council at 20 years: More necessary than ever by Minister of Global Affairs Stephane Dion and delivered by his Parliamentary Secretary Pamela Goldsmith-Jones at a 20th Anniversary event at Carleton University in Ottawa last month. This speech set out in broad strokes the national importance Canada places on the Arctic region. Ms. Goldsmith-Jones stated:

To continue on the importance of cooperation, let’s insist on the crucial relationship that must exist between Canada and Russia. Almost 50 per cent of the North is Russian, and some 25 per cent is Canadian. Between us we control 75 per cent of the North. Preventing scientists from these countries from talking is illogical. Our government has put an end to this irrationality. To sever the links with Russia, our neighbour, serves the interests of no one. Neither Canadians nor Russians nor Ukrainians. No one.

Our new Liberal government has said very little about Arctic policy and has adopted Canada’s northern strategy from the previous government. As Minister Dion’s speech demonstrates, Canada is committed to international engagement in the Arctic and will continue a journey it has been embarked on for years. However, it has made climate change a central theme as announced earlier in Washington this year and reported in Canadian Sailings’ Spring 2016 Arctic Special Edition.

Canada continues to prepare its submission for an enhanced continental shelf claim under article 76 of the International Law of the Sea Convention, and continues to collect geophysical data using Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers to support a claim. In December 6, 2013 Canada filed a partial submission with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in the Atlantic Ocean, and also filed preliminary information concerning the outer limits of its continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. Canada is continuing to collect and analyze continental shelf data in the Arctic Ocean and is collaborating with neighbouring states in the scientific, technical and legal work needed to do so. Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker CCG Louis St Laurent transited to the North Pole as part of this work this summer.

Canada’s position on Arctic defence and security has not been stated. Canada’s defense policy is the subject of a major defence review being conducted by the Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan, and has been ongoing since April 2016. One of the Minister of National Defence’s mandate letters included a reference to increasing our domain awareness in the Arctic. The letter from the Prime Minister specifically stated:

“Renew Canada’s focus on surveillance and control of Canadian territory and approaches, particularly our Arctic regions, and increase the size of the Canadian Rangers.”

It remains to be seen whether Canada’s thawing of relations in the Arctic with Russia is a tipping point or milestone much like the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Canada has said little else about its arctic policy which concerns some commentators who believe Canada is too silent and cautious. Given the importance of the interconnectedness of the Arctic Ocean Basin, which touches on all the countries around the Arctic Ocean including Russia, Canada, United States, Iceland and Norway, Canada’s new government has made an important step to engagement with Russia by opening dialogue. It remains to be seen whether the Arctic Council will address security concerns and grapple with some of the major issues involving the region, but it’s much easier to have everyone inside the tent, rather than outside. Dialogue is critically important but so is the sharing of scientific data, as rapid changes come to the Arctic. Without the scientific data we won’t be able to understand and/or protect the complex changes that are happening rapidly. Canada showed leadership at the creation of the Arctic Council over 20 years ago and it is imperative for Canada to once again demonstrate this international leadership in a rapidly warming region.

Joe Spears has advised the Government of Canada on Arctic marine policy. He recently chaired of the Arctic panel hosted by the Royal United Services Institute RU.S.I (Vancouver) Security Studies Conference which was attended by Canada’s Minister of National Defense, Harjit Sajjan. Joe can be reached at kjs@oceanlawcanada.com