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European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries
The European Union and the Arctic region
Conference “"Arctic Futures: A global partnership for the Arctic?"" /Brussels
4 October 2012
Your Highness, dear Minister, distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be here at the annual Arctic Futures conference in Brussels.
For the third year in a row scientists, academics, business representatives, indigenous groups and policymakers from all over the world have gathered here, in the heart of Europe, to discuss future scenarios for the Arctic.
Once more, we have proof of the growing interest gathering around this region from across the globe - and rightly so, since climate change is affecting the region twice as fast as anywhere else in the world.
Only two weeks ago, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the Arctic sea ice extent had reached its lowest levels since 1979, when first satellite observations began.
Some scientists say that if this trend continues, the Arctic might see its first ice-free summers in the next 30 years or so. Others are much more pessimistic: they say an ice-free Arctic could already happen by 2015.
Regardless of the pace, the Arctic is changing. It is a fact.
As the ice retreats, a number of new opportunities could open up in the Arctic, in a number of domains.
First of all, off-shore drilling in the Arctic now becomes a viable option for big oil companies. Surveys indicate that Arctic reserves could hold enough oil and gas to meet global demand for several years. As we know, dwindling supplies and growing demand have now pushed the price of a barrel of crude oil well past the one hundred dollar signpost. And though we may be greening the global economy, oil and gas remain vital.
Second, Arctic shipping is also due for a big comeback. In 2010, six vessels sailed the Northern Sea Route, the legendary shipping lane connecting Europe with Asia along the Russian coast. The following year as many as 34 ships did the same, and we expect this figure to double this year. The Route cuts the distance between Europe and Asia by a third. Its use considerably reduces costs and emissions.
With all these changes, remote cities in the High North such as Tromsø, Reykjavik, Murmansk and Nuuk will be on the transport grids to Europe, Asia or the Americas and will have the chance to become central trading hubs.
Third, as the waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic get warmer, we will see more and more fish stocks moving north. Last but not least, the region is also thought to be rich of minerals such as iron, zinc, copper, diamonds, gold and rare earths.
The EU is the largest economic block in the world, so clearly, the importance of the Arctic for us is only bound to increase.
But all these opportunities carry responsibilities. Already, through a combination of thawing sea ice, rapid technological advance and global thirst for energy and raw materials, human activity is on the rise in this part of the world. While it is true that the Arctic has been inhabited and used by mankind for over a millennium, the future level of human activity in the Arctic will be unprecedented.
Utmost care should be taken to minimize the risks of pollution from shipping and offshore drilling, as oil spills and accidents would have grave consequences on the Arctic's precious ecosystems. If they do take place, systems should be in place for a swift and effective clean-up.
It took three months to contain the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Should a similar accident happen for example in the Chukchi Sea, just above the Bering Strait, the nearest search and rescue stations would be nearly 2000 kilometres away. Rescuers would have to operate under extreme conditions, in an area devoid of sunlight for half of the year. And with Arctic tourism increasing, the consequences of poor search and rescue capabilities could be particularly severe.
Oil spills and shipping accidents are the most blatant examples of the challenges we face in the region.
In my opinion, however, whether or not the Arctic is to be exploited economically for these purposes is not up to us – whether here, in London or in Beijing. In my view, the first say goes to the countries directly surrounding the Arctic and to the people inhabiting this region.
That said, activities in the Arctic still require global attention. No single country will be able to build and maintain the infrastructures necessary to prepare for all eventualities. Partnerships between Arctic states and users of Arctic waters will be the key to ensuring safety and survival. In addition, robust safety standards for the Arctic should be adopted and enforced.
The EU itself is an Arctic actor by virtue of three Arctic states. Four, if Iceland accedes to the EU, as I hope.
The European Union's Arctic policy made progress last June, when the European Commission adopted a new Communication on the EU and the Arctic region that I proposed together with Vice President/High Representative Catherine Ashton. Its main thrust is that the EU stands ready to aid the region's sustainable development: supporting Arctic research, boosting economic development, combating global warming and developing greener technologies, while collaborating in international bodies to set high environmental and safety standards for the Arctic. In total, the document contains more than thirty action points for the European Commission and the External Action Service.
Since the beginning of this century, the EU has been a leading contributor to Arctic science and research, with a total value of 200 million euros under its Sixth and Seventh framework programmes.
We are also a key investor in the region's economic development. In the last five years alone we have delivered over 1.1 billion in programmes stretching from Greenland to the Urals.
Meanwhile, we are also exploring the Arctic from space. Due to its remoteness and its harsh environment, earth-orbiting satellites have to be used for science, research and communication.
Our satellite programmes are already providing considerable support to those living and working in the region. GALILEO, Europe’s own satellite navigation system, is going to help even further. Furthermore, the new generation of Sentinel satellites will not only be able to measure the sea ice extent, but also its thickness. The EU's satellite programmes could also contribute to search and rescue activities in the region. And in the face of increasing human activity, this will be an important contribution.
To conclude, ladies and gentlemen,
Our Arctic policy is moving its first steps. But there is a lot that we EU policymakers still have to learn about the region and the people who live there. Constant dialogue with them and with the Arctic states is required to define our priorities, seek issues of common concern and find common solutions. I look forward to holding such a dialogue with the Arctic peoples here in Brussels soon.
The time has come to work together, constructively and with determination on the future of the Arctic.