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Polar Times

Bringing sustainable development into better focus

The work of the Arctic Council has traditionally drawn its inspiration from the need to protect the sensitive Arctic environment. Our results in this area demonstrate some of the Council’s best work.By Gunnar Pálsson.

The work of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme’s (AMAP) working group, dealing with Arctic pollution, is one example of how the Arctic Council is working to protect the Arctic environment. The report of the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna’s (CAFF) working group, of Arctic biodiversity and conservation issues, is another. Increasingly, we are devoting more attention to ways and means of eliminating pollution, through the Arctic Council Action Plan (ACAP), which has developed specific action programmes to phase-out harmful substances. However, one environmental project commanding the greatest attention at this moment is probably the so-called Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), a regionally based study of climate change.

There can be little doubt that environmental issues will remain at the core of the Arctic Council. They are also likely to attract growing attention by the world at large, if only because the Arctic is increasingly being seen as an early warning area for other regions, in terms of both long-range transboundary pollution and climate change.

But we must never forget that the Arctic is not just environment. It is home to almost four million people, including more than numerous different groups of indigenous peoples. As it happens, many of the processes documented in the Arctic Council’s environmental reports have begun to work their effects through the lives and livelihoods of the people of the region.

This is not a cause for alarm. The Arctic remains a clean environment, as AMAP´s findings make clear. At the same time, some pollutants and changes in climate give reason for concern in certain ecosystems and for some human populations in the Arctic. Pressures are building in areas of the Arctic as a result of economic activities, including shipping, dumping and exploitation of oil and gas, aspects of which have been studied by our working groups on Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) and on the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME).

All of those pose serious challenges to the inhabitants of the Arctic region. However, many of the diverse Arctic communities have demonstrated exceptional resourcefulness in adapting to the demanding circumstances of life in the Arctic. In addition, not all of the changes affecting the region will necessarily be negative.

Whether we look upon the Arctic in terms of peril and risk or promise and opportunity, there can be little doubt that the time has come to devote more attention to the social, economic and cultural life of the region. We need to address both sides of the equation, society and nature, to arrive at a balanced notion of sustainable development.

Responding to this need, the Arctic Council has launched several initiatives focusing on the people of the Arctic, their living conditions and the factors that affect these conditions. The Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR) and the Survey of Living Conditions in the Arctic (SLICA) are among the projects that come to mind in this context. Taken together, such efforts should not detract from the Arctic Council’s work on the environment. On the contrary, they should reinforce that work and bring sustainable development in the Arctic region into better focus.

Ambassador GUNNAR PÁLSSON from Iceland is the Chair of Senior Arctic Officials. Iceland serves as Chair of the Arctic Council 2002-2004 and hosts the secretariat. The Arctic Council cooperates with international organisations. One example is the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), where the AC had a role in placing the problem of mercury pollution on the agenda.
For more information about the Arctic Council visit