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Knowledge is the key to understanding the changes in the Arctic, Norway says

By Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre

Pleased to be here in Akureyri. Together with my Icelandic colleague and good friend Össur Skarphedinsson. Many thanks to Rector Stefan Sigurdsson and the University for receiving us in these beautiful surroundings.
Last January: Össur and I were together in Tromsø, at the Arctic Frontiers conference. Today: at another arctic frontier - here in Akureyri. What both Tromsø and Akureyri – “the capitals of northern Norway and northern Iceland” – can offer: Front row seats to the developments in the High North.

Look at the map. Norway and Iceland are joined - not by land, but by sea and continental shelves; in fact, our waters and continental shelves meet further north-east between where we are now and Jan Mayen. In a way we can say, thanks to the Law of the Seas we are geographical neighbours, adding to the many other aspects that connect us – culture, language common history – and in many ways a common future, which we will focus on today. The future of our neighbourhood, the High North.

The geopolitics of the North

The High North is the Norwegian Government’s number one foreign policy priority – goal to ensure peaceful, sustainable and prosperous development. Iceland shares these objectives, which were set out in the Government’s recent strategy paper adopted by the Althingi.

The EU has presented an Arctic strategy – so did Denmark, just last month. Many others have done the same. A clear reflection of the increased importance of the High North.

I use to say: there are two shifts in the world’s geopolitics happening today. One is the emergence of new players on the international scene from the East and South; China, India, Brazil and so on. But there is another shift – here in the North. Growing international interest in our neighbourhood.

  • Three key drivers for this shift, which also form the point of departure of Norway’s High North policy:
    (first) climate change
  • (second) the rich natural resources in the region, and economic opportunities through transport, and
  • (third) developments within and in our relationship with Russia, by far the largest Arctic state

But before I elaborate on these changes, we should acknowledge the importance of the fundamental frameworks we have in place here in the North:

Political structure

Arctic Council is one of the world’s most successful forums for multilateral cooperation – the Arctic Council. Norway, Iceland, other Nordic countries, the US, Russia, and Canada – circumpolar.

Arctic Council has a very good track record in developing guidelines and best practices and producing scientific knowledge – in particular about pollution and climate change and how to deal with the consequences of climate change.

The Arctic Council cooperation has been consolidated and updated - agreement in Nuuk to strengthen this work even further – for instance, a permanent secretariat in Tromsø.

Agreement on search and rescue in the Arctic - first ever legally binding agreement.

A priority for Norway – as I know it is for Iceland – to further develop our cooperation within this framework, consolidating and strengthening the undisputed role of the Arctic Council as the leading circumpolar high-level forum.

My observation: Arctic Council also a priority for “big players” – US and Russia. Secretary Clinton came to Nuuk, with a large US delegation. Important signal.

Role of observer states: Arctic Council would benefit from the participation of new permanent observers like China and others who have demonstrated a real and sustained engagement in the Arctic and the work of the Arctic Council. New permanent observers would further strengthen the leading role of the Council. Share this approach with Iceland.

In addition to the Arctic Council we also have the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, the Baltic Sea Cooperation and the Northern Dimension, and traditional Nordic cooperation = Here in the north, we have the most successful, pragmatic and solution-oriented sub-regional pattern of cooperation in the world!

Legal structure

There have been claims that we need new legal instruments for the management of the Arctic. We disagree.

In the Arctic we have states with sovereign rights in sea areas off their coasts in accordance with international law. This is no “terra nullius”, and “flag planting” is completely irrelevant.

Existing international law provides a predictable framework for dealing with any foreseeable challenges in the Arctic.

Norway and Iceland have, for obvious reasons, a strong and shared interest in upholding the principles and provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This is also one of the priority objectives of Iceland’s High North strategy, and rightly so. The UNCLOS provides a clear framework for national measures and international cooperation in the Arctic, including shipping, environmental protection, science, delimitation of the outer limits of the continental shelf and the exploitation of resources.

So, with these two fundamental structures in place – both of which we will have to preserve and develop further – we are in a good position to address challenges and opportunities ahead; How to address climate change, increased economic activity – and a framework for our relationship with Russia and the other big players in the High North.

Key driver 1: Climate change

The extent of the extremely hard multiyear ice is diminishing. In the winter of 2009, less than 15% of the Arctic sea ice was more than two years old. The extent of the sea ice is also changing.

A few weeks ago, German scientists claimed that the Polar ice cap was smaller this summer than ever before since recording started in the 1970s.

The main reasons for the climate changes in the Arctic happen elsewhere. The most severe effects may happen elsewhere. But the changes are first seen here – that is why, as I mentioned in my introduction, that we – Iceland and Norway – offer front row seats to the developments in the High North.

In essence, the polar areas are key to understanding global climate change. The ecosystems in the Arctic are particularly sensitive to change. The critical levels, or tipping points, for altering these ecosystems are therefore of great importance.

They will have comprehensive consequences and lead to dramatic shifts in livelihoods, not only for the ecological regimes in the Arctic, but also on a global scale.

Arctic nations are ideally placed to observe the changes that are taking place. We therefore feel a particular responsibility for being at the forefront on climate and polar research – as you do here in Akureyri.

Key driver 2: Natural resources.

But climate change and the melting of the polar ice cap will also lead to increased economic activities. Because the Arctic contains vast natural resources – renewable as well as non-renewable - and business opportunities.

Fisheries: the need for food for an ever growing world population will continue to increase and put pressure on remaining productive soil. We need to secure the supply of marine proteins such as fish.

Some of the world’s richest fisheries lie in the Arctic. They must be preserved and enhanced as one of the world’s most important sources of food. Shared interest of Iceland and Norway.

Petroleum. Prospect for the Arctic as petroleum province - perhaps the main reason for the increasing interest in the Arctic

Possibly more than 20% of the world’s total undiscovered petroleum resources, but estimates of the amounts involved are highly uncertain.

Production already - primarily onshore in Russia - also in Norway and in several of the other Arctic states. The Snøhvit field in the Barents Sea is the world’s northernmost offshore gas field.

Iceland is about to start exploration activities in the Dreki area between Iceland and the Norwegian island of Jan Mayen, and Norway has similar plans for its side of the maritime boarder. The Norwegian and Icelandic authorities are already in close contact about these developments. If exploration leads to production at a later date, our agreements provide for close cooperation.

Transport. New opportunities for international shipping - may have important commercial implications. Shanghai - Hamburg via the Northern Sea Route along the coast of Russia is 6 400 kilometres shorter than Strait of Malacca / Suez Canal - saving 40 % time - close to 20 % fuel.

Keyword is safety of navigation - maintain effective search and rescue services in such a large sea area. Arctic Council Foreign Ministers in Nuuk: legally binding Search and rescue agreement.

Together with Iceland and other partners we work in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to develop a mandatory polar code for ships operating in the Arctic region. We need new regulations and standards for the design and equipment of ships operating in ice-filled waters including in the Arctic, in addition to guidelines for the training of personnel.

Arctic shipping and hydrocarbon activities could lead to greater risk of oil spills. At Nuuk we agreed on establishing an AC special task force - international instrument for prevention, preparedness and response

Measures to boost search and rescue, shipping standards, health, environment and safety standards and oil spill prevention are vital to enable the orderly, safe and secure use of the Arctic marine areas.

Key driver 3: Russia.

Russia is by far the largest Arctic state - 50% of the coastline, at least 50% of the resources. Influential player in shaping Arctic policies.

The Arctic used to be a “cold war theatre”.

Today - a peaceful region. No military threats in the classical sense of the word, actual or perceived. Greater interest in the region is not resulting in more conflict.

And there is no “race for the Arctic” either.

This is why I often speak of “High North – low tension”. Our priority – as it is Iceland’s priority - is to ensure that this continues to be the case in the North despite the changes that increased human activity is bound to entail.

Norway’s bilateral relations with Russia: we have lived in peace for over 1000 years.

Whereas our land border with Russia has remained fixed since 1826, our boundary at sea had been disputed – up to last year. Agreement on maritime delimitation in April 2010.

Treaty entered into force on 7 July 2011 – after 40 years of negotiations. 175 000 square kilometres divided into two parts of roughly the same size, based on modern principles of international law.

Establishes legal clarity for exploitation of natural resources. Confirms the longstanding Russian-Norwegian fisheries cooperation, regulates cooperation on the management of transboundary hydrocarbon deposits.

Demonstrates how good neighbours in the North can, peacefully and with patience, resolve overlapping claims in accordance with international law.

Because of close and extensive cooperation over decades in the fisheries sector at all levels – research, catch quotas, combating illegal fishing, etc. – the cod stocks in the Barents Sea have grown steadily in recent years. Today: one of the best managed stocks in the world.

Through this agreement: We have demonstrated how good neighbours can resolve complex issues in the Arctic by means of peaceful negotiations. “Big player – smaller player cooperation” through agreed principles and international law.

Important for Norway – as it is important for Iceland.

Concluding remarks – knowledge is key

Knowledge is the key to understanding the changes in the Arctic.

That is why knowledge is at the core of our Arctic Policy and High North Strategy. We need knowledge for management and to provide a basis for new and existing industries. This is why I am happy to address you here in Akureyri, where you have students and researchers of excellence in science and knowledge of the High North regions.

Through our knowledge, our presence and our activities here in these regions we aim to address the challenges and opportunities ahead. We have a legal and institutional framework in place – the Convention on the law of the seas and the Arctic Council. It is in both Iceland’s and Norway’s interest to develop and make best use of these frameworks in the future development of our common neighbourhood.

At the end of this meeting, Össur and I will sign a Memorandum of Understanding on strengthening our cooperation on Arctic scientific research. It is of course no coincidence that we are doing this here in Akureyri. I am confident that the University of Akureyri will benefit from closer cooperation, as will many of you present here today, and also researchers and students in Norway.

One of the elements of the MoU is the establishment of a visiting professorship here in Akureyri, named after the Norwegian polar explorer, scientist and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen. Among his many achievements are several explorations beyond the arctic frontiers – as in June 1888, when he set out from Ísafjörður here in north-western Iceland, towards Greenland and the first crossing of the Greenland archipelago.

We are celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth this year, and you will have an opportunity to acquaint yourselves with his life and work at the exhibition which we will be opening in a few minutes.

Thank you.

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