The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, Arctic Council and Multilateral Environmental Initiatives: Tinkering While the Arctic Marine Environment Totters

By VanderZwaag, David; Huebert, Rob et al. | Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, Arctic Council and Multilateral Environmental Initiatives: Tinkering While the Arctic Marine Environment Totters


VanderZwaag, David, Huebert, Rob, Ferrara, Stacey, Denver Journal of International Law and Policy


INTRODUCTION

The Arctic marine environment is not pristine, as commonly imagined, but is facing numerous pressures, (1) the most serious arguably coming from outside the region. Melting of sea ice, linked to global warming, threatens the long-term survival of various species including polar bears (2) and has potential to seriously disrupt ocean currents. (3) Persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including pesticides, industrial compounds and combustion by-products, are transported via air and water currents from regions outside the Arctic and become concentrated in the fatty tissues of animals. (4) The pollutants threaten not only the well being of wildlife but the health of northern residents heavily dependent on country foods. (5) Heavy metals, such as mercury, lead and cadmium, coming from various transboundary sources, including fossil fuel combustion and waste incineration, are also contaminating the Arctic marine environment. (6) Most Arctic bird species are migratory and during the winter months may accumulate various contaminants from industrialized locations further south and pass along pollutants to other Arctic animals when the birds become prey. (7) Ozone holes over the Arctic, while smaller in size and of shorter duration than in the Antarctic, raise concerns with negative effects on marine phytoplankton production (8) and human health effects such as skin cancer. (9)

Given the potentially serious consequences of transboundary environmental issues in the Arctic, international responses to date appear sluggish and weak. (10) At the regional level, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), adopted by the eight Arcticrim States in 1991, (11) and the subsequent amalgamation of the AEPS into the work of the Arctic Council, established in 1996, (12) have largely involved studying and talking about environmental problems with little concrete action. (13) Limited responses have been made to hazardous substance pollution through: the recently concluded global convention on POPs; (14) the 1998 Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade; (15) the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN ECE) Protocols on POPs and Heavy Metals; (16) The North American Sound Management of Chemicals Initiative; and the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Northeast Atlantic. (17)

A comprehensive inventory of heavy metal pollution sources around the world has yet to be undertaken and global controls on heavy metals are non-existent with no global heavy metals negotiations yet proposed and no global land-based marine pollution convention on the immediate horizon. (18) Addressing global climate change has been glacial and complicated with the Kyoto Protocol (19) laden with practical implementation questions and minimal greenhouse gas reduction commitments.

This article, in a four-part format, highlights how the present regional and multilateral legal and institutional responses might be described as tinkering in light of severe environmental threats facing the Arctic. The discussion begins with a summary describing how the Arctic environment might be pictured as "tottering" given the special sensitivities and the emerging combined stresses of persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, climate change and ozone depletion. This is followed by an evaluation of the roles of the AEPS and Arctic Council in responding to environmental threats. The article continues by critiquing the adequacy of multilateral responses to date including global efforts to control hazardous substances and climate change, UN ECE Protocols on POPs and Heavy Metals, and North American and Northeast Atlantic initiatives. Concluding remarks then suggest future directions for further action to address transboundary environmental issues such as the need for a more comprehensive approach to managing toxic chemicals in light of developing rights, such as the rights of children and indigenous peoples to a healthy environment, and the precautionary approach.

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