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The Changing Arctic Environment

The Arctic's unique nature is still relatively undisturbed.  It is very rich in resources such as hydrocarbons and fish stocks. However, it is under intensifying pressure from pollution, climate change and unsustainable development.  It is vitally important that increasing economic development such as hydrocarbon exploitation and new shipping routes takes fully into account the preservation of this unique and highly vulnerable environment. Some four million people live in the Arctic region including nearly half a million EU citizens.

Three EU Member States - Denmark (Greenland), Finland and Sweden — have territories in the Arctic. Two other Arctic states - Iceland and Norway - are members of the European Economic Area. Canada, Russia and the United States are strategic partners of the EU. European Arctic areas are a priority in the Northern Dimension policy. Beyond areas of national jurisdiction, the Arctic Ocean contains parts pertaining to the high seas and the seabed managed by the International Seabed Authority.

The EU is a party to the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-west Atlantic (OSPAR) which covers about one-third of the Arctic Ocean up to the North Pole.  Many other multilateral environmental agreements apply to the Arctic to some extent (where Arctic States are parties). The European Union's application to become a Permanent Observer on the Arctic Council was received affirmatively by the Kiruna ministerial (May 2013) with a final decision on implementation expected soon.  The EU is a member of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC).

The Arctic is a key driver of the world ocean and climate system and plays a vitally important part in many other environmental issues .  The impact of climate change on the Arctic is already evident.  Continuation of these trends would have profound consequences both for the Arctic and the global environment. 

Key issues include:

Long range transport of pollution - the Arctic is a global sink for contaminants discharged from industry, energy production, agriculture and other human activities.  Persistent organic pollutants and mercury are of special concern. Contaminants are concentrated in the thick fat tissues that Arctic animals need for insulation and energy reserve, and which are consumed by humans.

Biodiversity - some ecosystems and species are clearly put at risk; maybe most clearly the hundreds of endemic species specially adapted for life on the sea ice. Many migrating species from Europe depend on the high productivity of the Arctic ecosystems in summer for foraging and reproduction: birds, whales, fish – some of them commercially harvested with high economic value.

Environmental impacts of economic development – increasing oil, gas and mineral exploration, shipping and tourism puts pressure on the vulnerable Arctic environment.  It is essential to have clear and effective policies in place to manage these risks.

Knowledge and understanding of the Arctic environment – the EU is making a major contribution to research, monitoring and assessment of Arctic environmental issues and trends through funding of projects under the EU Research Framework Programmes and through the assessments carried out by the European Environment Agency.

The EU role

The EU is committed to working with the Arctic States, local communities and other stakeholders to address these environmental challenges. It is progressively developing an EU Arctic policy based on key documents listed to the right.

The EU's objectives are to

  • Support research and channel knowledge to address the challenges of environmental and climate changes in the Arctic region
  • Act with responsibility to contribute to ensuring that economic development in the Arctic is based on sustainable management and use of resources and environmental expertise
  • Intensify its constructive engagement and dialogue with Arctic States, indigenous peoples and other partners.

Projects funded by DG Environment

DG Environment funded a study to assess the EU's environmental footprint on the Arctic and to assess policy options to reduce the footprint. Details of the study can be found here.  

A project to conduct a Strategic Assessment of Arctic Development through a network of leading European Arctic centres was completed in October 2014. More details...

A project to establish an NGO dialogue on Arctic environmental issues with seedcorn EU funding for three years (2011-14). A follow-up phase is now under consideration. More details...