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UNEP and the Arctic

The mission of UNEP is to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and people to improve quality of life without compromising that of future generations. An important part of this work is to keep under review the state of the global environment, to assess global and regional environmental trends in order to provide early warning information on environmental threats, and to report to decisionmakers and other stakeholders in formats that are easily accessible and easy to understand.

Arctic ecosystems, be it on land or in water, are vulnerable for disturbances and for exploitation of their renewable and non-renewable resources. Airborne pollution from countries
far away into the Arctic affects living organisms ranging from lichens to polar bears, and global warming and depletion of the ozone layer may have serious negative impacts for future generations. These threats are a result of a range of global activities, and the small population of the Arctic’s indigenous people can do very little, if anything, about it. The fact that the resources of the Arctic are of extreme importance and value for the outside world, but also that the Arctic’s small population, numbering less than 4 million people, cannot reap the economic and social benefits from resource use, represent political and moral dilemmas.

Many chemicals released to air or water by activities in Europe and North-America accumulate in the High North. Hazardous substances may lead to genetic defects, and may result in metabolic changes, reduced fertility, and cancer. Nervous systems and muscle functions may also be affected. All in all, such pollutants may seriously affect the health and welfare of entire Arctic communities. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), negotiated under the auspices of UNEP, and expected to come into force in 2004, sets out control measures that address the production, import, export, disposal, and use of POPs.

The health and well being of the Arctic’s indigenous peoples is probably one of the best indicators on sustainable development in the Arctic. UNEP's support and co-operation with indigenous peoples is an important part of our Arctic agenda. In Arctic Russia, life expectancy for the indigenous peoples are 20 years lower than for the average Russian, and among the Mansi there are no known people of retirement age. This should call for serious concerns, and is an example why it is important for UNEP to prioritise its work on indigenous people of the North.

Deterioration of the Arctic environment as a result of climatic changes may have severe consequences for us all. Possible changes in the paths and flows of major ocean currents is but one example. A nonsustainable development in the Arctic may furthermore disrupt important renewable resources such as fish stocks in the Arctic seas, and may affect unique biodiversity and wilderness areas that are of benefits to the Arctic’s people as well as for the global community at large. For these obvious reasons UNEP is increasing its focus on environmental conservation linked to sustainable development in the Arctic.

Our strategy is to cooperate closely with key stakeholders such as the Arctic Council, the Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ organisations, Arctic Parliamentarians, the Arctic research
communities, and the NGOs. Many of the articles in this newspaper are based upon the Arctic part of UNEP’s latest Global Environment Outlook GEO 3 and our contribution on the
Arctic in GEO 3 is a result of close cooperation with all our stakeholders. This winwin collaboration gives UNEP access to the best available and most credible data and assessments of the Arctic environment and opens a UN channel for our collaborators where sustainable environment in the Arctic is put into a global context.

As a partner in the GEF, UNEP may provide financial resources to cover incremental costs of environmental projects in the Arctic. We have currently under development and implementation several projects in Arctic Russia addressing POP’s, biodiversity, climate change and protection of the marine and terrestrial environments, amounting to a total of 40
million USD, and where the GEF contribution is close to 50%.

GRID-Arendal has been UNEP’s key polar centre since 1999, with a particular focus on environmental assessment and early warning in the Arctic. Together with our strategic partners we will strive to convey the importance of Arctic environmental protection into decision-making processes, ranging from the local to the global levels. An important part of this is to provide updated and reliable information. This Arctic Environmental News is a part of this effort.

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