Questions and answers on the EU’s Arctic Strategy

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you in association with the European Commission.

Why should the EU be engaged in the Arctic?

As a geopolitical power and a major economic player, the EU has strategic and day-to-day interests, both in the European Arctic as well as the broader Arctic region, and shares the responsibility for sustainable development there. The EU also has a fundamental interest in supporting multilateral cooperation in the Arctic and it is working to ensure that the Arctic remains safe, stable, sustainable, peaceful and prosperous.

The EU is a global leader in the fight against the climate and biodiversity crises, and is ready to play its full part and assume its global responsibility. Climate action is of particular importance to the Arctic, given the immense knock-on effects of Arctic warming. The consequences of this Arctic transition extend to the whole planet, and affect people in multiple ways.

The legislative proposals under the European Green Deal are at the heart of the EU’s Arctic engagement, together with the EU’s new approach for a sustainable blue economy, supported by science, innovation and regional investment.

The EU’s engagement in the Arctic is therefore not a question of convenience, but a necessity.

What is the impact of the EU on the Arctic?

As a major industrialised economy with a large population, the EU influences the Arctic in a variety of ways. The EU has a significant impact on the Arctic through its environmental footprint and demand for resources and products originating from there.

The emissions of greenhouse gases drive global warming, while pollutants such as persistent organic pollutants, black carbon, heavy metals like mercury, and micro- and macroplastics reach the Arctic by air and ocean currents.

The EU contributes to Arctic warming through an 8% share in global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the EU is responsible for around 36% of Arctic deposition of black carbon, which speeds up the warming of the Arctic, the melting of snow and ice surfaces, and is a harmful air pollutant[1].

The EU recognises its own impact on the region and will continue to assess it. It aims to tackle this impact in a coordinated manner, in close cooperation with national, regional and local authorities, and the Arctic communities. With this new Communication, the EU commits to act against major sources of pollution affecting the Arctic regions in the air, on land and at sea, such as plastics/marine litter, black carbon, chemicals, and transport emissions as well as unsustainable exploitation of natural resources.

How will the EU enhance its role in the Arctic?

The EU’s full engagement in the Arctic is a geopolitical necessity. The EU has a fundamental interest in supporting multilateral cooperation in the Arctic and in working to ensure that it remains a zone of low tension, stability, prosperity and peaceful cooperation.

The Communication on the Arctic commits the EU to increased engagement in and around the Arctic region, in response to the geopolitical, environmental, economic, security and social challenges they face, and to working with others to manage new opportunities there. Building on its policy as set out in previous Communications on Arctic matters[2], and based on the 2016 Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy and the political priorities of the Commission, the EU aims to strengthen further its Arctic engagement.

Some actions include in particular:

  • The EU will enhance its strategic foresight, looking in particular at the links between climate change and security; it will mainstream Arctic matters in its external diplomacy and build on regional cooperation. To mitigate safety concerns, the EU will extend civil protection capacities and search and rescue cooperation and intensify research into permafrost thawing. It will establish a permanent presence in Greenland to enhance our partnership and the visibility of EU actions on the ground.
  • Addressing the ecological, social, economic and political challenges arising as a consequence of climate change and taking strong action to tackle climate change and environmental degradation. By implementing the European Green Deal, including the new approach for a sustainable blue economy, and pursuing priorities at international level, the EU will seek to mitigate, adapt to and recover from climate change-related problems and offer European solutions to ensure a robust green and blue transition. The EU will continue to develop sustainable relationships with its partners in the region and strengthen the Arctic’s ocean governance.
  • The EU will invest in the future of people living in the Arctic, stimulating better education, sustainable growth and jobs, including more involvement of young people, women and Indigenous Peoples in Arctic decision-making, on issues such as innovation and research, job creation, digital skills and education.
  • The EU will stimulate an innovative green transition, where the Arctic regions can showcase future-compatible job creation in innovative sectors, including: carbon-neutral energy, hydrogen, sustainable extractive industries, e-based learning, e-health, connectivity and infrastructure, sustainable tourism, green technologies, fisheries and agriculture. The EU will insist that oil, coal and gas stay in the ground, including in Arctic regions.

How will the EU finance its actions?

EU Arctic-related funding is provided through several programmes and initiatives.

  • within the Cohesion and Rural policy programmes for Northern Sweden and North-East Finland, while the Interreg programmes extend the reach of EU actions by involving the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Norway and Russia

These programmes are key instruments for the EU to steer developments taking place in the Arctic. In 2021-2027, the EU’s Cohesion programmes will focus on green and digital transition, providing support for smart economic transformation through continuous smart specialisation strategies, funding for entrepreneurship, and initiatives for young people in the Arctic. The northern Finnish and Swedish regions are also eligible for the new Just Transition Fund, which aims to alleviate the social and economic costs resulting from the transition to a climate-neutral economy.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) Group will play a key role in implementing InvestEU, alongside other implementing partners, including national promotional banks or International Financial Institutions, such as the Nordic Investment Bank. Any non-EU country can be associated by contributing to InvestEU. The EIB will support green energy in the Arctic. Financing and investment is available for projects that implement the circular economy by increasing resource efficiency and by progressing on sustainable production processes, as well as other circular projects across products’ life cycle.

The EU will support Arctic science through Horizon Europe 2021-2027, after having invested around EUR 200 million in Arctic-related research under Horizon 2020 between 2014 and 2020. Several Horizon 2020 funded projects are still ongoing and will lead to further projects under Horizon Europe and through groupings such as the EU Polar Cluster.

  • through the EU’s Copernicus and Galileo space programmes and programmes such as the Connecting Europe Facility

EU programmes that can support sustainable development in the European Arctic will be made more visible for beneficiaries, through a dedicated online investment and information portal.

The EU pushes for oil, coal and gas to stay in the ground, including in Arctic regions. We witness however soaring energy prices, greater demand. Is this goal realistic?

The call in the new Arctic Strategy for limiting fossil fuel extraction aims to speed up for global energy transition. The EU is committed to implementing the Paris agreement, and oil, coal and gas have the biggest impact on climate change. This is why the EU is pushing for oil, coal and gas to stay in the ground, including in Arctic regions. The International Energy Agency’s report on Net Zero by 2050 clearly stated that: “No new oil and natural gas fields are needed in the net zero pathway”.

First, the Commission will explore with partners a multilateral legal obligation not to allow any further hydrocarbon reserve development in the Arctic or contiguous regions, nor to purchase such hydrocarbons if they were to be produced. We could build on the partial moratoriums on hydrocarbons exploration in the Arctic that are already put in place with partners such as the U.S., Canada or Greenland.

Second, the EU will speed up the transition to renewable energy so that affordable renewable energy becomes available for everyone. The Arctic has a huge potential for renewables (geothermal, wind, green hydrogen and hydro-energy). The development of clean energy technologies is in the interest of the Arctic and the EU.

How to make the extraction and use of rare raw materials from the Arctic more sustainable?

Regarding the extraction of important raw materials, the new Arctic Strategy suggests to promote environmental, economic and social assessments and use best practices and highest environmental standards for mining, waste management and accident response. The EU would also support area-based management and implement circular economy initiatives.

[1] EPRD, Overview of EU actions in the Arctic and their impact, June  2021

[2] COM(2008) 763, JOIN(2012) 19 and JOIN(2016) 21

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