Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for the Environment details why a stronger and more focused approach is needed to protect the Arctic…
If there is one place in the world where climate change is plainly visible, it is the Arctic region. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. The winter ice has lost an area of over one million square kilometres – the size of France and Germany combined.
The impact is increasingly clear in Europe too: the drier summers, the shorter winters, the frequent floods and storms we have been experiencing of late – all are a product of this massive Arctic thaw, which alters ocean currents and weather patterns on a global scale.
But our concern for the Arctic is not only an environmental one. The region’s importance for the EU is also strategic. European companies are developing innovative cold-climate technologies, for instance new fish-farming techniques and innovative processes for clean energy like offshore wind, wave and geothermal power. The northernmost part of our Union has brought forward novel technologies, and we must make sure these are granted effective access to the Single Market. Nature tourism has taken off in Iceland and Lapland, with a positive impact on the local economy, and can be further developed.
These are some of the reasons that have pushed High Representative Mogherini and me to present in April an integrated European policy for the Arctic. For many years the EU has been invested in the region, but we believe it is time for a stronger, more focussed approach: one that champions social and economic development for the entire region above the polar circle; that promotes responsible behaviours vis-à-vis the Arctic ecosystem; and that fully recognises the Arctic’s strategic value for global security, and its crucial place in our foreign policy.
We are also strongly committed to the 4 million people who live in the region, whose way of life, cultures and traditions need safeguarding must continue to thrive. Some are EU citizens, since Denmark, Sweden and Finland are EU members with Arctic territories. Their culture is part of our European culture, it is part of who we are. Together we can be a driving force towards a more circular and sustainable economy.
It is clear to me that these aims of environmental, economic and cultural sustainability can only be achieved through dialogue and cooperation – consensus being the only acceptable way to drive sustainability forward. So far the Arctic has been a primary example of constructive regional and international cooperation, but it is also true that the challenges we all face become more complex by the day: it is now even more important to engage with all relevant players, craft common positions and make collaborative solutions emerge. This is true for environmental protection and scientific research, but also for the safety and security of all maritime activities in the Arctic – areas in which we all have stakes and responsibilities.
Speaking of responsibilities, the EU has its own share. The people and ecosystems of the Arctic feel the influence of our emissions, our plastic bags, our industrialised fishing. We are not shying away: the European Fund for Regional Development is to invest more than €1bn in the north of Sweden and Finland by 2020. At least another €40m will go to Arctic research in 2016 and 2017 alone, while various European Structural and Investment Funds are supporting climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.
My own vision is for the Arctic to become a global beacon for sustainable development, and that is the rationale of our new initiative. The region lies at the intersection of three continents: what happens beyond the polar circle impacts on the whole of Europe and the world. Think of this new initiative as the EU putting a softer, more positive footprint in the fragile Arctic snow, for a better future for us all.
EU Commissioner for the Environment