Conserving nature, creating wealth

The Arctic is in the grips of environmental change. Far-born pollutants, like Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals like mercury, are affecting its biota and people. Climate change appears to be happening much faster here than in more southern climes. In the next 100 years it is possible that the temperature may rise by 3–9°C in the Arctic, about double the average expected on the rest of the globe. By Siv Fridleifsdòttir

These truths were brought home to me in my visit to Svalbard at the August meeting for environment ministers and other high officials hosted by Børge Brende, Norway’s Environment Minister. We have of course known many of the facts regarding environmental change in the Arctic for some time, but discussing them with experts and decision-makers in the magnificent setting of Svalbard made them very pertinent. The natural environment of the Arctic is changing perhaps more rapidly than in any time before in human history, and the countries of the circumpolar region must try both to tackle the causes of our problems and adjust to the change.

the next decade looks likely to be a turbulent period for Arctic residents

Social change is also rapid in the Arctic. Powerful forces create stress on ancient cultures and traditional ways of life. For these reasons, the next decade looks likely to be a turbulent period for Arctic residents.

Iceland shares many of the characteristics of the Arctic as a whole, such as a reliance on natural resources for economic growth and a desire to preserve its traditions and culture in an era of globalization. We must also work on conserving our nature, which is both a provider of our livelihood and a big part of our identity.
The Icelandic government has in recent years attempted to diversify the economy, which is still very dependent on fisheries. A part of this strategy is the harnessing of Iceland’s abundant renewable energy to foster new industries. These efforts are also meant to strengthen employment in regions that have experienced population decline. They also help in our fight against climate change. A shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is the one single policy measure that will do the most to halt the emission of greenhouse gases. Already, over 70 percent of Iceland’s energy demand is met by clean and renewable energy sources, and the government aims to increase this ratio still more. A new project introducing hydrogen vehicles to Iceland aims at starting a clean revolution in transport, the biggest remaining source of greenhouse emissions.

While harnessing Iceland’s hydro and geothermal energy is positive from the viewpoint of halting climate change, it can clash with efforts for nature conservation. We have had a lively debate on new power projects in Iceland in recent years. We must strive to find a fair balance between economic and social development and nature conservation. In October 2003, as Minister for the Environment, I presented the first comprehensive nature conservation plan, which outlines the creation of more than a dozen new nature conservation areas in the next five years. We plan to double the total area of protected areas in Iceland before the year 2009. The most ambitious project will be the creation of a new national park, centered around Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. This will become Europe’s largest national park, encompassing glaciers, volcanoes, hot springs and turbulent rivers – a unique showcase of Earth’s creative forces in action.

The Arctic faces much the same dilemmas and choices as Iceland. The challenges of climate change and far-born pollutants must be faced. We must also ensure that we conserve the magnificent nature of the Arctic regions, while working on the economic and social developments of Arctic communities.

SIV FRIÐLEIFSDÓTTIR Minister of the Environment and Nordic Co-operation, Iceland

See related articles:
Lessons from the Svalbard ice
Memorable Svalbard
Why we need to protect the artic
The world's eyes are on the Artic
The Artic regions and climate change

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