The climate and environment in the Arctic region are drastically changing due to climate change and the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere have been identified as a region suffering from a major environmental crisis. Yet at the same time, the Arctic is an economic region with strong potential because of its polar sea routes, mineral and energy resources and fishing products…

A rich, fragile region hit hard by climate change

The IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and the Cryosphere in a Changing Climate published in 2019 stated that over the past 20 years the increase in the Arctic air surface temperature was two times higher than the global average.
In the winters of 2016 and 2018, the surface temperature in the central Arctic was 6°C higher than the average from 1981 to 2010, which contributed to an unprecedented melting of ice in the region. In a report published in 2021, scientists in the AMAP (Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program) working group of the Arctic Council estimated, in a report published in May 2021, that the increase in average surface temperatures in the Arctic between 1971 and 2019 was three times higher than in the rest of the world.

One of the most spectacular signs of the changing climate is the sharp decrease in the breadth of the Arctic ice cap at the end of summer. Since 1980, the total volume of Arctic sea ice has reportedly decreased by 75%. In the coming decades, IPCC experts have predicted that every third year will have an ice-free summer if global warming cannot be kept under 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

An essential component in climate regulation
The Arctic Ocean is key to regulating our planet’s climate. As scientists say, “what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic” and the consequences of environmental and climate changes in the circumpolar North are now being felt everywhere on Earth.

Environmental and climate challenges and economic opportunities are inextricably linked. Over the past several years, the Arctic region has been identified as a potential economic and commercial area. Four areas warrant special attention:

Mineral resources

According to a paper published in 2008 by the US Geological Survey, the Arctic could contain up to 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas resources.

These resources make the Arctic a strategic region in terms of energy, but the situation is not so simple. The idea of engaging in a race for these resources should be put into perspective since a large portion of them are located underneath States of the region or in maritime Exclusive Economic Zone under their jurisdiction.

Moreover, US Geological Survey estimations|->] concern undiscovered resources extrapolated from the geology of sedimentary basins that are little known, particularly in the offshore field. Additional drilling costs due to climate conditions and ice, the lack of infrastructure, remote locations and dangers inherent in polar areas considerably reduce the economic appeal of these oil and gas fields.

Lastly, drilling for these resources presents a major environmental risk because it is very difficult to deal with spills as there are no infrastructures and techniques to effectively cope with these types of accidents in waters covered in ice and in a particularly fragile marine environment.

Arctic sea routes

Every year, climate change releases a bit more water in the Arctic region from ice thereby gradually opening up possible new sea shipping routes.

Northern Sea Route

The Russian government has made developing the Northern Sea Route a priority. It is modernizing and investing in its infrastructures to make it possible to extract resources in Russia’s Far North regions and to export them to Asian and European markets.

The Northern Sea Route reduces the distance between Rotterdam and Yokohama by 40% (compared with the route through the Suez Canal). This advantage needs to be put into perspective because the distance gained grows smaller the farther south the European and Asian ports of departure and destination are.
None of the major maritime shipping companies have developed a regular transcontinental line via the Northern Sea Route and a minimal increase is expected in transcontinental maritime traffic caused by the melting of summer ice until at least 2030.
Shipping conditions are limiting and dangerous:

  • extreme conditions (drifting ice, fog, incomplete maps),
  • no rescue infrastructures and deep-water ports,
  • no international transport hubs,
  • additional shipping costs in polar waters (ice-equipped vessels, crew training, ice-breaking assistance, high insurance costs).

It is impossible to project that over the short or medium term that the Northern Sea Route could seriously compete with the Suez Canal or the Strait of Malacca because of its uncertain economic viability, vessel safety issues and strict environmental protection requirements that are particularly difficult to implement.

Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage also sees its waters being gradually released from ice due to climate change. However, Canada does not plan to develop maritime transport there: the Artic and Northern Policy Framework published by the Canadian government in September 2019 states that the extremely variable ice conditions continue to make navigation difficult and hazardous and underlines the risk to the environment that a growing number of vessels would generate.

Over the long term, the steady melting of the summer sea ice due to climate change could make the central Arctic route (which is the shortest) as or even more attractive than the Northern Sea Route or the Northwest Passage for transcontinental traffic.

Fishing regulation in the Arctic

Impacted by climate change, the migration of fish to the North and the improvement of navigation conditions make it possible to fish new renewable biological resources such as polar cod or American or European plaice, in the high seas.

In this context, the signature in October 2018 of an agreement to prevent unregulated fishing in the high seas in the central Arctic Ocean by five coast States of this ocean (Russia, Canada, Denmark acting in the name of Greenland and the Faeroe Islands, Norway and the United States) as well as by China, the European Union, Iceland, Japan and the Republic of Korea, is essential progress for protecting the Arctic Ocean and its fragile ecosystem.
This agreement sets forth conservation and management measures as part of a long-term strategy for the protection and conservation of marine ecosystems and sustainable fishing.

Renewable energies and new technologies

In a region where climate change can also generate economic and commercial development opportunities, it is especially important to promote green growth by focusing on renewable energies, green technologies, investment and innovation. The Arctic is a laboratory of new technologies in the areas of information and communication technologies, robotics, automation, embedded systems, and sensors.

The Arctic, an area for cooperation

The nature and scale of the challenges in this marine space call for a high level of international cooperation between the States directly and indirectly concerned.

The opportunities and challenges generated by the thawing of the Arctic mainly concern the five coastal States of the Arctic Ocean (Russia, Canada, United States/Alaska, Denmark/Greenland, Norway) which, in accordance with their sovereignty and their jurisdiction over large portions of the Arctic Ocean and their sovereign rights over natural resources that are found there, are in a legitimate and special position for addressing them.

Through regional cooperation bodies and bilateral cooperation programmes involving Russia, the Arctic has gradually become an area for cooperation between the neighbouring countries which undertook in the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration (28 May 2008) to peacefully settle their maritime disputes in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Several European and Asian States outside the Arctic have expressed their interests and their responsibilities in strategic documents on the Arctic. In 2016, the European Union adopted a comprehensive policy for the Arctic area and is currently thinking about updating its main policy lines. France has adopted a «national roadmap for the Arctic » which identifies, categorizes and coordinates French policy on the Arctic area.

The Arctic Council and other forums for dialogue

The Arctic Council was created by the 1996 Ottawa Declaration signed by the eight States of the region (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, United States). It is the main political forum for regional cooperation on Arctic issues..

The Arctic Council is not a governance body of the region but a forum for cooperation between Arctic States (as well as non-Arctic States with 13 observers, including France since 2000). It cannot address military and sovereignty issues (which are not under its remit) so that it can focus discussions on issues around which a consensus can easily be achieved such as:

  • scientific cooperation,
  • environmental protection,
  • well-being and economic development of indigenous peoples,
  • maritime safety, etc.
    A large part of the Atlantic Council’s work concerns scientific and technical issues which are studied in theme-based working groups.

Two main factors helped establish the legitimacy of the Arctic Council:

  • Its special relationship with indigenous peoples including organizations with permanent participant status. They have the right to speak in ministerial meetings on the same footing as States.
  • The growing number of States outside the Artic area that are candidates for observer status. In 2013, Asian countries joined (China, India, Japan, Korea and Singapore). Today, the Council has 13 observer States. The European Union is a permanent guest but has yet to be granted observer status. The arrival of emerging countries reflects the growing interest in the region and its resources, but also the Arctic Council’s increased awareness of the need to include the States whose greenhouse gas emissions are having significant consequences on the Arctic.

Arctic Council meetings

Ministerial meetings of the Arctic Council bring together foreign ministers of Arctic States every two years. At the meetings, the presidency of the Council of a Member State is transferred to the next one. Russia assumed the presidency (2021-2023) after Iceland (2019-2021). In their final declarations, ministerial meetings set out political directions, recommendations from working groups and the work programme for the next two years.

Three legally binding agreements have been adopted in this framework:

  • The Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic (2011),
  • The Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic (2013),
  • The Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation (2017).
    These texts are not agreements of the Arctic Council, but intergovernmental agreements that were negotiated and adopted within it.

The Senior Arctic Officials’ meetings bring together senior officials and/or ambassadors responsible for the Arctic of Member States. At these meetings, participants regularly monitor the implementation of the work programme decided in the ministerial meetings, supervise the action of the working groups and, in reports they draw up, provide information on the work accomplished. They also prepare the declarations for the ministerial meetings.

Other forums deal with certain aspects of the Arctic issues:

  • The Barents Euro-Arctic Council, of which the European Union is a member and in which France has observer status;
  • The European Union Northern Dimension;
  • International Maritime Organization and the Arctic Regional Hydrographic Commission of the International Hydrographic Organization.

There are also international forums dedicated to the Arctic:

  • The Arctic Circle, led by Iceland’s former President, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, which has become an important forum for all of the stakeholders in the Arctic. Policymakers, companies and NGOs meet in Reykjavik every autumn to discuss a wide range of topics;
  • The Arctic Economic Circle, which brings together public and private stakeholders, is a growing forum. In proof of recent momentum, the Arctic Council signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Arctic Economic Circle in May 2019;
  • Arctic Frontiers, a Norwegian initiative held in Tromso every year, which is a key meeting on Arctic issues.

France’s policy in the Arctic

France, a polar nation

One of the first countries to establish a scientific station in the Arctic

With a strong tradition of exploration and expeditions in high latitude regions, France has made a name for itself as a polar nation. It has a permanent scientific presence in the Arctic and Antarctica. All of the land infrastructures and French logistical means in polar regions are managed by the French Polar Institute Paul-Émile Victor (IPEV)->], an agency using its means and skills to serve science.

In 1963, France established a scientific research station in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago where it shares a permanent station called the AWIPEV Base with Germany in the international scientific village of Ny-Ålesund. It also has the Jean Corbel Station, which is 5 km from Ny-Ålesund.

French research at work

France ranks eleventh among scientific nations with regard to scientific publications on the Arctic (for comparative purposes, it ranks fifth internationally for Antarctica). French teams of scientists and the French Polar Institute Paul-Émile Victor maintain ties of cooperation with foreign partners.
For more information on the French Polar Institute Paul-Émile Victor

France relies on this experience and its network of scientists to make a meaningful contribution to the work conducted in the six working groups of the Arctic Council.

  • Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP);
  • Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF);
  • Protection of Arctic Maritime Environment (PAME);
  • Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR);
  • Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP);
  • Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG).

France’s diplomatic action in the Arctic

France considers the Arctic to be an environmentally sensitive area from the perspective of sustainability and the general interest.
Issues economic development, the environment and maritime safety require France to particularly consider the region when it comes to global interests and international responsibilities.

In 2016, it adopted a « National Roadmap for the Arctic » which provides a framework to align and prioritize approaches in line with Arctic challenges and issues in an approach of well understood sustainable and general interest.
Since 2009, France’s diplomatic action regarding the poles has been strengthened by the appointment of an ambassador. Former Prime Minister Michel Rocard held this post from 2009 to 2016, followed by Ségolène Royal from 2017 to 2020. In November 2020, President Emmanuel Macron named Olivier Poivre d’Arvor Ambassador for the Poles and Maritime Issues.

For more information on France’s Roadmap for the Arctic

For France, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (10 December 1982) is the legal framework governing all the activities concerning the Arctic Ocean.. This Convention balances interests of the coastal States and of other States in issues of governance in the Arctic Ocean.

France supports an environmental precautionary approach across multiple sectors based on the protection of Arctic marine ecosystems and upholds the principle that the Arctic is an “experimental area for the development of green technology”.

Active in the protection of the Arctic marine environment, it supports the drafting of a polar code in the International Maritime Organization. France encourages the development of tourism that respects the Arctic environment and advocates measures to curb the impact of shipping on marine mammals.

Updated: August 2021