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The Arctic is often perceived as a remote, barren area. But that is not the full story.
The Arctic covers about 8 % of the Earth’s surface, or four times the area of all US territories combined, but has only 4 million inhabitants.
While the various parts of the Arctic have a lot in common, climatic conditions and the degree of human activity vary greatly across the region.
We are not talking about a homogenous region. There is not one Arctic. There are many Arctics.
Because of the North Atlantic Current, temperature and ice conditions in the Norwegian part of the Arctic are vastly different from those of Alaska.
The Arctic is not Antarctica - it is an ocean surrounded by nation states as opposed to a continent surrounded by sea.
The United Nations Law of the Sea applies. There are few unresolved jurisdictional issues. The Arctic is a peaceful corner of the world.
However, the Arctic is changing rapidly and interest in the region is growing fast.
Only a few years ago even the Arctic states tended to ignore this region. Economic interests and political ambitions drew our attention elsewhere.
Now, the Arctic attracts significant interest for ecological, economic and geopolitical reasons.
The Arctic is home to resources such as energy, minerals and food.
And the potential for shorter trading routes in Arctic waters is now being explored.
We face a paradox here: Global warming is alarming – and bad news to all of us. At the same time the melting ice cap opens up new commercial opportunities.
With major opportunities come major responsibilities. Not only for the Arctic states, but for all stakeholders in the Arctic.
I would warn against a “Gold rush” like the one we once saw in the West.
In the Arctic we need to go forward gradually – step by step – following high environmental and safety standards. We have to make sure that the development of the resources is conducted in a sustainable manner.
This requires investments of both financial and intellectual capital. But it is the most important investment we can make for the future Arctic.
The Arctic as a geopolitical center
The development in the Arctic has geopolitical consequences. Commercial interests and opportunities for climate change research are important reasons for this.
Non-Arctic actors - both European and Asian - want to take part in the development of this region as it opens up.
But there is no race for the Arctic.
Even with such great interest from many actors there is a high degree of consensus that exists at these high latitudes.
Take the example of Russia - the biggest Arctic state by any measure - with 50 % of the Arctic coastline and at least 50 % of its resources.
Norwegian -Russian relations are good. We cooperate in a broad range of sectors.
It is in our common interest to have good cooperation not only with Russia, but with all actors in the Arctic.
This is necessary to maintain the Arctic as a peaceful and stable region – a region of international cooperation.
As one of the Arctic states, the US is a crucial partner for Norway.
Norway and the US share goals for sustainable development of the Arctic. We both put great emphasis on knowledge and research. And we cooperate on reducing emissions from short-lived climate pollutants.
New sailing routes
As I mentioned, we face a paradox as the receding ice in the Arctic opens up new economic opportunities, particularly in the areas of energy and transport.
In 2010 there were only four transits of the Northern Sea Route between Novaya Zemlya and the Bering Strait. This year the number of transits has already passed 60.
An ice-free Arctic could shorten distances between the North Atlantic and East Asia by about 40 %.
However, most current reports indicate that the Northeast Passage will continue to just be a complementary route for certain types of products.
The main increase is expected to be in destination traffic to and from petroleum activities in Arctic waters rather than in transit traffic.
There is also increasing interest in the Northwest Passage. But climate conditions and shallow waters still make this part of the Arctic difficult to navigate.
A new energy region
According to the International Energy Agency, the global demand for energy will increase by 35–40 % over the next 20 years.
Despite all the new resources found in the US, and the fact that the US will become more or less self-sufficient with regards to energy in some years, it is estimated that 22 % of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas resources may be located in the Arctic.
Is this a dilemma? Some have advocated that the Arctic should be closed to further commercial activities.
We believe that it is possible to manage economic activities soundly so as to ensure environmental protection and sustainable development.
For example, Norway has been engaged in oil and gas activities in the Arctic since the early 1980s. At the same time, we have been able to further develop our fish resources.
We have sought to strike a balance between different user interests in the sea areas while at the same time safeguarding the environment.
Fish stocks are taken into account in areas that have been opened up for petroleum activities.
With the high environmental and safety standards, Norway has developed a successful petroleum industry. And we are continuing on this path in the Arctic.
Sustainable resource management in the North
Regional cooperation is essential to ensure that industrial progress in the Arctic does not come at the expense of the marine environment and living marine resources.
Commercial fisheries are not envisaged in the central Arctic Ocean in the near future. But adjacent waters, and the Barents Sea in particular, are home to some of the world’s richest fish resources, such as the Northeast Arctic cod.
Back in 1988 the cod stock was at a low point. Today the cod stock is estimated to be ten times larger than it was 25 years ago.
This development would not have been possible without the close and constructive fisheries cooperation between Russia and Norway.
The results are literally being harvested by the fishermen. The catch value of the fish resources managed by Russia and Norway alone corresponds to more than two billion dollars.
This is an example of good cooperation, but it is also an example of how different industries can coexist and thrive together. It illustrates the importance, and the opportunities, of sustainable management.
Climate change challenge
When we talk about the Arctic, the climate challenge is key.
While the impacts of climate change are most severely felt in other parts of the world, the changes are most clearly seen in the Arctic.
Over the last 100 years, temperatures in the Arctic have been rising twice as fast as the global average.
In September 2012, the extent of the Arctic sea ice was at a record low. The Arctic Ocean is projected to become virtually ice-free in this century, perhaps only a few decades from now.
Biodiversity in the Arctic is being threatened by the warmer climate and the spread of organic pollutants.
Arctic Ocean acidity is higher than previously predicted and higher levels of CO2 are a threat to marine life.
But the most serious effects will be felt globally.
As the Arctic warms, we can expect monsoon weather patterns to be affected.
And scientists project that the retreat of the ice in the polar areas will coincide with rising sea levels and accelerated global warming.
To conclude: What is common for our approach to all of these areas – climate change, new sailing routes, energy, and resource management – is the need for knowledge.
Without knowledge we will not be able to face these tasks. Nor will we understand the complexity of the Arctic.
Research and science will be essential in developing solutions for the Arctic in the future. It is in our common interest and it is our responsibility.
I encourage you to take part in this.