The Arctic Council: A Testing Ground for New International Environmental Governance

By Koivurova, Timo | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Arctic Council: A Testing Ground for New International Environmental Governance


Koivurova, Timo, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


The Arctic is often misrepresented as a place of its own. From many perspectives, it is not. There is no legally defined political unit called "the Arctic," even according to the region's nation-states-Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, the Russian Federation, Canada, and the United States (Alaska). The Arctic can be best perceived as a peripheral region from the viewpoint of the region's nation-states and their capitals, which are located much further south.1 Before the emergence of Arctic international cooperation between the region's states, it was impossible to identify the Arctic as a unique politicolegal area. It was the eight Arctic states' 1991 adoption of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) and the fleshing out of environmental policies for six priority environmental problems confronting the region that initiated gradual emergence of the Arctic as a distinct place for international policy and law.

The Arctic is often misrepresented as an overtly independent place in international politics and law.2 It is, of course, possible to examine in detail the emergence and development of the region's main intergovernmental forum, the Arctic Council.3 However, this should be done with a clear understanding that the Arctic is simply an extension of existing political, economic, and environmental systems. The current global governance system (politico-legal) is multifaceted, containing global, regional, national and subnational levels, including the Arctic. Major drivers of change-economic globalization, climate change, and other issues-have clear impacts on the region. Long-term changes in global market prices of minerals or oil have direct impacts in the Arctic region.

It is important to keep in mind that the structure of the Arctic governance system is almost opposite to that of the other polar region, Antarctica.4 Since the seven sovereign states agreed not to consolidate their claims over the continent with the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, there are currently no sovereigns in the Antarctic. This contrasts starkly with the Arctic, where all land, islands, and much of the waters are under the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the Arctic states on the basis of international law.5 The structure of the Arctic environmental protection system is thus very much influenced by the fact that eight sovereign nation-states ultimately determine how the environment is to be protected in the region, even though environmental protection must be done in accordance with international legal obligations to which the states are committed.

Given the isolated nation-state-based structures of Arctic environmental protection, it may be surprising to note that the cooperation process between the region's states has contributed not only to the protection of the Arctic environment, but also to the resolution of larger environmental problems such as climate change mitigation and the elimination of persistent organic pollutant usage. Beginning with an historical account, this article will examine the ways in which Arctic international cooperation has been able to influence the protection of the Arctic and global environments in general. It will also draw conclusions about what can be learned from the success of this regional regime in environmental cooperation and the overall development of international environmental policy and law. This topic is particularly relevant to current affairs given that the international community is currently debating how best to reform international environmental governance.

Evolution of Arctic Cooperat ion

Given that the Arctic was one of the main strategic military hot spots of the Cold War, it may seem surprising that cooperation on environmental protection among the region's nation-states was able to commence in the wake of the 1991 collapse of the USSR.6 Inspired by Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev's speech in 1987, in which the Soviet leader proposed various possible areas for Arctic cooperation, Finland took the initiative to begin talks. …

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