Arctic Purity Despoiled, Europe Urged to Take Action

BRUSSELS, Belgium, March 17, 2004 (ENS) - Melting permafrost, high levels of toxic chemicals, fragmentation of wildife habitat - the Arctic environment is under stress, and unless decisionmakers in industralized European countries address these issues, the region is due for some drastic changes, a new study reveals.

In a joint report, the European Environment Agency (EEA) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said Monday that the northern polar region faces a range of threats from unsustainable development, pollution and climate change. The European Union bears much of the responsibility for these threats and must take action quickly, the report warns.

"Today it is industrialized countries, including the EU nations, that are the main users and the main sources of pollution affecting the region," said EEA chief Jacqueline McGlade. "The EU in particular has the potential to take a leading role in catalyzing the response on Arctic nations."

The report was compiled by experts at the UNEP GRID Arendal center in Norway. It shows that once abundant fish species are being overharvested, and unique plant and animal species are under threat or disappearing due to climate change.

Pollutants, some known to be cancerous, are present in key Arctic species, "causing great concern for human health," the report says.

power plant

The coal-burning power plant in the town of Inta, East-European Russian Arctic (Photo P. Kuhry courtesy Arctic Centre, University of Lapland)
The Arctic's unique nature is still "relatively undisturbed," the report says, but that cannot last. The peoples of the industrialized countries outside of the Arctic are the primary beneficiaries of Arctic resources. These same countries, including those in the EU, are a major source of pollution and other problems in the Arctic region.

Europe is a major source of pollutants that contaminate the Arctic, the report says. "Heavy metals - mercury in particular - and organic chemicals, which do not easily break down in the environment, are key concerns."

Oil spills could have catastrophic effects on some Arctic ecosystems, warns the report.

European nuclear reprocessing plants are the second largest source of historical radioactive contamination of the Arctic. Within the Arctic, there are numerous military and civilian nuclear installations, especially on the Kola peninsula of northwest Russia, that pose risks for largescale radioactive contamination.

Piecemeal development is also beginning to have a major cumulative effect on the Arctic environment, with adverse economic and social consequences for its indigenous peoples.

"With the high levels of toxic chemicals in local Inuit peoples, the melting of permafrost and the retreat of glaciers across the region, the Arctic is like an environmental early warning system for the world," UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said.

"Luckily there are measures to address these problems. On May 17 this year, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants will become legally binding. This international legal agreement commits governments to stop the production and dispersion of the so-called 'dirty dozen' highly toxic chemicals," Toepfer said.

"In addition, the Kyoto Protocol can enter into force and set the scene for further measures to address climate change if the Russian Federation accedes to it," he said.


Sea ice of varying thicknesses in the European Arctic (Photo courtesy European Space Agency)
Inuit people have been trying to warn the industrialized countries that their environment - stable for millenia - is now changing rapidly.

Inuit hunters say that they are seeing climate change every day. Sea ice is coming in later and melting sooner, and it is thinner in some areas.

At last December's UN climate conference in Milan, Italy, the chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, said polar bears and other Arcticanimals are threatened and so is the Inuit way of life. She says even if the Kyoto Protocol is fully implemented, the Arctic climate is sure to be altered by the greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels in industralized countries thousands of miles away.

"If there's going to be any effective change in what's happening to our Arctic climate, we are going to have to go beyond Kyoto," said Watt-Cloutier. "Kyoto is merely a first step, and the least the United States and Russia and other countries can do is sign on to this very minimal instrument."

Watt-Cloutier says the refusal of the United States and Russia to sign the Kyoto Protocol is a violation of Inuit human rights.

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, representing the 155,000 people who live within the Arctic Circle, intends to ask the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to document how the Inuit way of life is disappearing as the sea ice melts away. The human rights connection may be used to pressure the United States and Canada to limit their emission of greenhouse gases.


The Inuit people everywhere in the circumpolar region are feeling the impact of industrialization. (Photo credit unknown)
On the European side of the world, UNEP and the EEA aim to use their new report to contribute to the successful implementation of the EU's second Northern Dimension Action Plan, covering 2004 to 2006.

Although the action plan's geographical priority is the Baltic area, it has the potential to address circumpolar and global issues affecting the resources and environment of the entire Arctic.

The action plan, which includes a focus on sustainable development, is expected to play an important role in developing cooperation between the EU and regional bodies related to the Arctic, such as the Arctic Council.

"The contributions that the indigenous peoples living in the High North and the Arctic can make to this process, and the role they play in the stewardship of the region, are of key importance for the implementation of the new plan," Toepfer and McGlade write in a joint foreword to the report.

McGlade said, "Governments, regulators, indigenous peoples and the private sector need to work together to manage the Arctic's natural resources and use them responsibly and equitably. These and other measures will not be accomplished without genuine commitment at all levels, but Europe's connection to the Arctic more than justifies this commitment."

The report "Arctic Environment: European Perspectives" is available at: