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Time to finish what they started

Finland’s Arctic Council chairmanship begins at a crucial moment for the climate and the region
Apparently, things are worse than he thought

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Foreign ministers representing the Arctic Council member states gathered in Fairbanks this week reaffirmed that the world has resolved to act on climate; there is no time to waste in living up to these commitments back home.

Another challenge by which Finland’s success as the next Arctic Council chair will be assessed is the network of marine protected areas and reserves in the Arctic waters, currently a pale shadow of what scientists say is necessary to secure healthy and functioning marine ecosystems.

The ministers’ declaration signals that the world has already resolved to act on climate, stands behind its commitments, and that the Trump administration cannot stop this train. By retaining climate-change language in the Arctic Council’s Fairbanks Declaration, the Arctic states’ foreign ministers blocked the latest attempts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Trump administration to cement the United States’ global pariah status.

SEE RELATED: Four out of five Finns can’t be wrong, can they?

This move comes after people around the country, including business and political communities, as well as global leaders, applied public pressure to the Trump administration. This week, Alaska activists and residents applied that pressure directly to US officials attending the Arctic Council meetings, including Mr Tillerson, with airport greetings and rallies outside of the meeting venue.

Finland, commencing its chairmanship, wants to facilitate effective implementation of the Paris Agreement over the next two years. This could hardly be more urgent; Arctic sea ice hit a record low this past winter for the third year in a row, and a recent Arctic Council report just showed how greenhouse gases are changing the Arctic even faster than we thought. However, we still have not seen the Arctic governments spelling out what stopping dangerous climate change means in practice: all Arctic oil must stay in the ground.

An Arctic Scorecard compiled by the WWF illustrates a major shortfall in implementation of the Arctic Council’s scientific advances and recommendations by member states. Conservation of marine areas is a key field where the gap between international commitments and tangible progress is profound.

Finland identifies protecting marine and coastal ecosystems as “a major challenge for the member states” and states that the United Nations Aichi Biodiversity Targets should guide the work of the Arctic Council. The targets include protecting at least 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. But to date only a fraction of the central part of the Arctic Ocean and its adjoining seas are protected.

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The Arctic Protected Areas Indicator Report, published during the Fairbanks meeting, is the Council’s first step towards a vision outlined in the Framework for a Pan-Arctic Network of Marine Protected Areas, an ecologically connected, representative and effectively managed network of protected areas and specially managed areas that protects and promotes the resilience of the biological diversity, ecological processes and cultural heritage of the Arctic marine environment.

The much-delayed assessment clearly shows that the Arctic Ocean and its adjoining waters are lagging far behind the 2020 target, with protection of less than 5% of the Arctic waters. Although the report fails to assess which elements of the Arctic marine biodiversity are covered by the protected areas network in the Arctic seas, it provides clear indication that they do not overlap with key biodiversity areas. According to the report, only 5% of areas of heightened ecological importance and less than 1% of ecologically and biologically significant areas fall within protected areas.

Finland was the first Arctic country to propose protection of the high seas around the North Pole. The Arctic Council’s framework for a Pan-Arctic network, however, excludes the high seas. This means excluding nearly a fifth of the Arctic Ocean from the desired ecosystem-based management approach and denying it the active protection that it badly needs.

The challenge for Finland is to facilitate tangible progress in building the network of marine protected areas and reserves in the Arctic seas in order to avoid an embarrassing failure to miss the 2020 checkpoint. Scientists advise that at least 30% of the world’s oceans need to be protected by 2030 in order to maintain healthy ecosystems. Establishing a sanctuary in the high seas portion of the Arctic Ocean would be a good and necessary step in that direction.  

The author is a Greenpeace Arctic campaigner based in Finland.

Photo: Arctic Council Secretariat/Linnea Nordström