New Swedish Environmental Policy for the Arctic (January 2016)

By Polar Research and Policy Initiative
Image: © Tomas Utsi/

In January 2016, the Government of Sweden published its new environmental strategy for the Arctic. The Government acknowledged that as an Arctic country with high environmental ambitions, Sweden has an important role to play internationally in this regard. The Swedish Minister for Strategic Development, Kristina Persson, also highlighted the new focus of the policy at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway, on 25 January.

“A whole world is affected when the Arctic environment is threatened.”, the government press release stated. “We want to see stronger climate efforts, legal protection for sensitive natural environments and prevention of the risks involved in drilling for oil and overfishing.” It added: “The Arctic acts as the planet’s refrigerator. Its enormous white expanses of ice and snow reflect large parts of the sun’s rays back into space, thus stabilising the Earth’s climate. The area is home to millions of people, including indigenous peoples, and ecosystems of global importance. The Arctic environment and its fate concerns us all, directly or indirectly.”

Following up on the new global climate agreement that emerged over COP21 at Paris and bearing in mind the further decisions that need to be taken in Arctic cooperation, the Government provided reassurances that it would both make demands of other Arctic countries and take responsibility at home. In its press release (issued by Åsa Romson, Minister for Climate and the Environment; Margot Wallström, Minister for Foreign Affairs; and Kristina Persson, Minister for Strategic Development), it outlined a four-fold premise for its proposal:

1. Stronger climate efforts
The Arctic countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Russia, Canada and the United States, all members of the Arctic Council) are responsible for a large proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions and have a major responsibility to reduce emissions. Sweden has pushed for a reduction in emissions of short-lived climate forcers, such as soot and methane. This is still important, but climate efforts must be broadened. The Government therefore wants to strengthen measures in the Arctic Council concerning climate and renewable energy.

2. Legal protection for sensitive natural environments
There are serious shortcomings in the protection of the valuable Arctic environment. In particular, there is a lack of adequate protection of the marine environment, which is becoming increasingly accessible and vulnerable as the ice melts. This calls for efforts on a broad front. We are beginning this work to make progress. In the first week of February, all Arctic countries are invited to Sweden and the Government Offices to discuss the management of the marine environment in the Arctic. The Government is pushing for the Arctic countries to develop a network of protected environments, for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to be supplemented with a new protective agreement and for other decision-making bodies to be as active as possible in putting protection in place.

3. Preventing the risks of drilling for oil
Researchers have warned that offshore oil extraction in the Arctic is a high-stakes undertaking. A large proportion of the world’s oil resources must stay in the ground if we are to keep global warming as far below two degrees as possible. Extracting oil in the Arctic is both expensive and risky. An oil disaster could cause a great deal of damage to the sensitive environment. In recent times, a low global oil price has made drilling for oil in the Arctic an unprofitable business, but a low price in the short term is no lasting guarantee that the sensitive Arctic environment will be protected.

This is why it is crucial that we make demands of the oil companies, in terms of both economics and safety. Sweden wants to see robust regulations that ensure the highest level of protection. We want only companies that can assume the entire cost of a disaster to be granted permits to extract oil in the Arctic. The costs must not be shifted onto the environment or the world population through environmental damage, or onto the tax payers in the Arctic countries. In practice, these are requirements that together can protect the Arctic from the risks of drilling for oil.

4. Preventing overfishing
The parts of the Arctic Ocean and seabeds that have historically been covered by a permanent layer of ice must now be protected. The Government considers that commercial fishing in the central northern Arctic Ocean should not be permitted until a regional organisation for fisheries management is established to ensure that fishing is carried out in a sustainable way. Sweden believes that a precautionary approach should be taken and that consideration should be given to the ecosystems when designing this fisheries management. Good management is informed by decisions made on scientific grounds with a long-term perspective.

This is how the Government is taking the next step in the international arena to strengthen efforts to protect the Arctic environment. With legal protection of sensitive environments and clearer requirements in the area of oil prospecting and fishing, we can protect the natural environment in the Arctic – and by doing so improve the chances of today’schildren living a good life in the future. The world needs countries that move the environment further up the agenda. Sweden is one such country.”

See Sweden’s new environmental policy.

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