The Model Arctic Council: An Opportunity for Innovative Policy Dialogue

By Justin Barnes

Justin Barnes and Brittany Ennis

From 29 October to 2 November 2018, while the Senior Arctic Officials of the Arctic Council met in Rovaniemi (Finland), the University of Lapland played host to the Model Arctic Council 2018 that brought together 51 students from 13 countries and 32 universities. Among the participants were Justin Barnes, Canada Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative and postgraduate student at Trent University (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada), and Brittany Ennis, undergraduate student at Brescia University College (London, Ontario, Canada). Hereon, Justin and Brittany share their experiences of the meetings and highlight why the Model Arctic Council (MAC) serves as an invaluable opportunity for innovative policy dialogue. 

Justin Barnes:

The Model Arctic Council 2018 wrapped up on 2 November 2018 and was a very successful event. The Model Arctic Council (MAC) brought 51 advanced undergraduate, masters and PhD students from 13 different countries and 32 universities to the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, to simulate an Arctic Council meeting. This simulation took place simultaneously to the third Senior Arctic Officials’ meeting held during the Chairmanship of Finland (2017-2019) which was also held in Rovaniemi, Finland, from 1-2 November. The MAC participants had multiple opportunities to interact with the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials (SAOs), including their simulation ‘counterparts’, and ultimately completed their final MAC meeting with the SAOs in attendance to observe. The MAC was a great learning opportunity for its participants but was also an innovative way to discuss future Arctic policies of significant relevance to the region. The MAC is one of the University of the Arctic’s thematic networks and was organised and led by Professor Lassi Heininen (University of Lapland), Professor Mary Ehrlander (University of Alaska Fairbanks), Professor Brandon Boylan (University of Alaska Fairbanks) and Professor Heather Exner-Pirot (University of Saskatchewan). This article will give an overview of the core highlights of the MAC 2018 and the potential for discussing innovative international policies outside of the more formal restraints of the Arctic Council in simulation events such as the MAC.

The (Real) Arctic Council

The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum where member states and Permanent Participant organisations come together to discuss common issues, move initiatives forward and advance cooperation and collaboration among the Arctic states. The Arctic Council’s consensus- and collaboration-building norms are important for bringing member states closer to consensus on a number of Arctic-related issues. Although the Arctic Council has no implementation powers, it has been a successful policy-shaping forum. According to Mary Ehrlander, “an example of the AC’s policy shaping power is that three binding agreements have now been signed under the auspices of the Arctic Council. The AC cannot implement (enforce) those policies, but it got the discussion moving.” The agreements on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic (2011), Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic (2013), and Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation (2017) are indicative of the Council’s ability to shape policy in a consensus-building environment.

Model Arctic Council 2018: Highlights of the Simulation

The MAC provided the opportunity for its participants to discuss Arctic issues and build consensus by debating within the norms and procedures of the real Arctic Council. The theme of the MAC was “Oil & Gas drilling in Arctic Seas versus Environmental Protection” where the impacts of oil and gas drilling on the Arctic ecosystem, the sustainability of these activities, and how these activities can be balanced with environmental protection were discussed and debated in the context of high-level meetings of the Arctic Council and three of its working groups: Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), Emergency Preparedness and Prevention (EPPR) and Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG). After four days of presentations and debate, the MAC participants adopted innovative ideas in a formal declaration: Arctic Energy Horizons: a Vision for Sustainable Arctic Solutions.

The Arctic Energy Horizons declaration is a significant document containing the final outcomes of the discussions and debates held within the simulation. The MAC participants agreed upon energy-related outcomes that include the improvement of energy development standards to protect the environment, the establishment of a new working group ‘WAVES’ to promote innovative energy solutions in the Arctic, approaches to improve economic and living conditions, and the prioritisation of Indigenous voices in advancing human development in the Arctic.

In order to improve the current oil and gas industry standards in the Arctic, the MAC participants (from the perspectives of their positions) agreed that the Arctic Council’s current agreement on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic (2013) was not enough to protect the environment, and there needed to be a new agreement beyond emergency response. In order to set out safety standards to prevent an oil spill, the participants agreed to an Agreement on Oil Spill Prevention During Extraction that contains minimum standards for all Arctic states to meet during oil and gas extraction activities.

In the simulation, the establishment of a new working group of the Arctic Council, Working toward an Arctic with Visionary Energy Solutions (WAVES), was established with the mandate to: “support collaborative research; to identify and develop best practices for Arctic-specific challenges in energy production, diversification, and technology; and to promote responsible and sustainable management, use, and development of energy and natural resources, as well as innovative approaches encouraging renewable energy in even the most remote Arctic communities.” Under WAVES, eight thematic areas would seek to meet this mandate including approaches to efficient transportation, transmission, and storage of energy, a strategic plan for oil and gas futures, approaches to regulation, policy and financing, and the inclusion of Traditional and Indigenous knowledge and leadership in projects and initiatives, with at least two experts appointed by each Permanent Participant. The MAC participants agreed that WAVES is an innovative idea for a working group that would help the Arctic Council meet the need for sustainable energy solutions in the region. It would narrow the focus on balancing the environment and energy production and place greater attention on the common need across the Arctic for innovative policy and technological solutions in this regard.

In recognition of the issue of indigenous voices not being actively implemented into policy, the Permanent Participant representatives released a joint-statement on Indigenous issues in Arctic Council Discussions asking the Arctic Council member states to further consider the concerns of the Permanent Participants’ representatives in their decision making. The (model) member states agreed to prioritise their perspectives that included considering ecosystems as persons and the need for finding alternate economic opportunities and energy sources for Indigenous communities.

For the full declaration, click here:

The Model Arctic Council as an opportunity for Policy Dialogue

The MAC brought together well-prepared students from all around the world who were ready to represent their given roles. More importantly, though, the participants came ready to promote their ideas on how to improve policy on the circumpolar level. The topic selected by Professor Heininen regarding oil and gas extraction in the Arctic is a topic rarely discussed in the Arctic Council, likely due to the difficulty it poses for diplomats to reach consensus on such a contentious issue and the potential to distract from other important issues. The interest in stimulating economic development through oil and gas development in the Arctic and balancing it with environmental protection is an issue of immense importance, yet it remains a topic of limited discussion in the Council. Oil and gas development remains a national priority for multiple Arctic states and some would strongly resist any outside influence on their domestic economic goals. With only one member state required to object to such a topic being on the Council’s agenda, it is rare that these issues are openly discussed in that forum.

Therefore, this presents the MAC as a unique activity that allows for discussions to be had concerning difficult issues, such as oil and gas extraction in the Arctic, without the limitations that exist in the real Arctic Council. As Professor Heininen noted: “the simulation model allows searching for new and innovative solutions, and testing new, even unorthodox, methods.” Although the MAC is very much a simulation and various foreign and domestic policy realities may not be taken into account, the simulation allows for participants involved in Arctic research to debate solutions and develop new ideas from the perspectives of their given roles outside of existing diplomatic limitations. Whilst the norms that exist in the Arctic Council are there for a reason, it is possible that events such as the MAC could give policy makers something to think about in the future, particularly when discussing unpopular or difficult diplomatic topics that may not formally arise in the real Arctic Council.


The MAC 2018 was ultimately an excellent learning opportunity for graduate students conducting Arctic related research to learn more about the role of the Arctic Council in shaping circumpolar policy. The participants learned about the norms and procedures of the Arctic Council as a high level intergovernmental forum and its consensus building customs during the brief training beforehand and during the simulation’s proceedings. The MAC also provided a unique forum for discussing high-level circumpolar approaches to common issues outside of the formal diplomatic restraints of the Arctic Council. The next fully international UArctic MAC will be hosted by the University of Akureyri in Iceland in 2020. More information on the UArctic’s Model Arctic Council thematic network can be found here:

Brittany Ennis:

From 29 October to 2 November 2018, I took part in the Model Arctic Council at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland. There were 51 students representing 32 universities and 13 birth countries. The Model Arctic Council (MAC) began in 2016 at the University of Fairbanks in Alaska, with the original professors still actively involved in its organisation and implementation today. In 2018, the topic was oil drilling versus environmental protection. I was one of two students who had the honour to represent the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC).

As a strong believer in experiential learning, I found this to be an excellent program where undergraduate and graduate students fostered meaningful discussions to try and resolve problems in the Arctic. While this program is designed to enhance students’ understanding of the Arctic Council and the way in which international relations functions, it also serves as ideal testing ground for future policies of the Arctic.

From this experience, there are three major takeaways for me.

First, in some ways, the Model Arctic Council is more progressive than the Arctic Council. Oil drilling versus environmental protection has not yet been a topic that the Arctic Council has debated, making it fresh, uncharted territory for the MAC participants to explore. Further, as I have discussed with other participants, the MAC allows students to produce innovative solutions because we do not feel the pressure of the state or group we represent. We can produce results where all member states and permanent participants are content without having to consider fully various political pressures. This does not take away from the reality of the situation, but removes a barrier that would otherwise pose a limit to the discussions we could have. For instance, in real life, the Permanent Participants may be unable to prepare an a joint statement that emphasised the need for Traditional Ecological Knowledge and protection of Indigenous land. While their individual thoughts may be shared, it is unlikely for the Permanent Participants to present joint statements to strengthen their position.

Moreover, while the Model Arctic Council seeks to provide a realistic experience, there is one major adjustment that is less common in real SAO meetings. During the simulations, Observer members were given the opportunity to speak during discussions, if they wished. While this is unusual, it offered new perspectives on how to compromise when dealing with challenges that the Arctic region faces. Further, it helps us see why observers are interested in Arctic issues and what they are able to offer in terms of funding, resources and compromise. For instance, ad hoc observers like Shell and Equinor (formally Statoil) were not only able to express their opinion towards oil drilling, but also they had the opportunity to share how they would make oil drilling environmentally friendly and safer with more sophisticated technology.

Finally, the Model Arctic Council encouraged participants to think beyond the perspectives of their home country. MAC participants were encouraged to simulate roles that they were unfamiliar with to gain a new cultural perspective. Many of my fellow MAC participants noted that their involvement with the Arctic is limited to their personal interest or the interests of their professors. Therefore, having the opportunity to truly put ourselves in a new role was very exciting. In international relations, it is crucial that we gain an in-depth understanding of the interests and culture of various states and members. In both the Arctic Council and the Model Arctic Council, achieving such diversification and cultural understanding allows us to achieve complicated goals through inclusionary and peaceful means.

In short, the Model Arctic Council offers a unique experience where both participants of the simulation program and the Arctic Council can benefit. Today, the MAC participants are students on their way to earning various degrees, but soon, many of the participants will have active roles in deciding the future of the Arctic.

Justin Barnes is a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative and the Assistant Editor of the Arctic Yearbook 2019: Redefining Arctic Security. At present, he is also pursuing an internship at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). He holds a MA in Sustainability Studies from Trent University’s School of the Environment, where his research focused on the sustainable development of Canada’s coastal communities on the Arctic Ocean. As part of this research, Justin explored the concept of environmental security, the role this form of security plays in shaping social, economic, and environmental policies, and its influence on resource and infrastructure development in the Arctic. Justin is also actively involved in the sport of Sailing and represented Canada internationally on the World Sailing circuit as an athlete on the Canadian Sailing Team for five years (2013 – 2018).
Brittany Ennis is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Brescia University College studying French and Political Science in London, Ontario (Canada). While she has various research interests, she is particularly interested in human and food security. She also volunteers as a tutor and a mentor at her university. Outside of university, Brittany enjoys traveling and playing the piano.
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