RD Interview: Magnus Johannesson, director of the Arctic Council’s Secretariat, talks about the achievements, priorities and goals of the organization.

Members of the Arctic Council work to maintain the Arctic as a peaceful region of cooperation and sustainable resource management. Photo: TASS

This year is a special one for all those involved with the Arctic agenda. It has been 20 years since the main governing body in the region the Arctic Council was established in 1996 with the signing of the Ottawa Declaration. Since then, it has been operating as a high-level forum to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states. It has also involved indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants with a common agenda, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection.

On the sidelines of the Oct. 12-13 conference organized by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), “International Cooperation in the Arctic: New Challenges and Vectors of Development,” Russia Direct spoke with the current director of the Secretariat of the Arctic Council, Magnus Johannesson, to find out about the key achievements, current priorities and the inside workings of the organization today.

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Russia Direct: This year the Arctic Council is celebrating its 20th year anniversary. In your opinion, what were its biggest achievements?

Magnus Johannesson: The Arctic Council has been, in my opinion, quite successful in its achievements. Generally speaking the biggest achievement has been the gathering of knowledge on the Arctic. We know today much more about the Arctic than we did 20 years ago, thanks to the Arctic Council.

Monitoring pollution and monitoring climate change have contributed quite a lot to the global debate. For example, the Arctic climate impact assessment, which the Arctic Council did in 2004 helped the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and helped climate change negotiators to know what was really happening in the world.

We can also say that our work on pollution in the Arctic helped to deal with persistent organic pollutants (POPs) [a hazardous organic chemical compound that is resistant to biodegradation and thus remains in the environment for a long period of time. Editor’s Note] and minimize the level of mercury in the Arctic.

There are a number of other things. I would also say that two legally binding agreements on search and rescue and on combating pollution in the Arctic are also very clear achievements of the Arctic Council.

Magnus Johannesson, Director of the Secretariat of the Arctic Council. Photo: Arctic Council's Flickr page

RD: What are the main priorities for the Council in the coming years?

M.J.: Today there is a focus on climate change issues both on mitigation work on black carbon emissions and also looking at adaptation how can the communities in the Arctic actually respond to the impact of climate change in the years to come.

At the moment, there is also work on ocean matters how can we deal with new challenges and ocean-related issues. There is also a question of growing tourism in the Arctic and how can the Arctic states ensure that it will be sustainable.

There is also the implementation of the two legally binding agreements with exercises taking place between the eight Arctic states [Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. Editor’s Note] ongoing and there are also issues with regard to renewable energy, namely what kind of options are there for communities in the Arctic to take advantage of renewable energy resources.

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RD: The new agreement on scientific cooperation was mentioned during the conference. Could you elaborate on what it would entail?

M.J.: This agreement will surely enhance the work for scientists. It will, for example, facilitate the movement of equipment, scientists, and samples between state borders, which sometimes has been tedious and it will definitely help the scientists from various states to work together.

RD: Are there any negotiations on new agreements taking place right now?

M.J.: No, we are not expecting to have any. This agreement on scientific cooperation is expected to be ratified by the signatures of the ministers when they meet in May next year. But at the moment there are no other legally binding agreements being drafted.

RD: As you see it, did the U.S.-Russia confrontation have any impact on the work within the Arctic Council?

M.J.: There is a really good spirit of cooperation in the Arctic Council now and there is no effect from conflicts in the world on the work in the Council.

RD: What do you think about the idea of putting the Arctic under a similar framework that exists currently in the Antarctic (the Antarctic Treaty provides for peaceful scientific exploration forbidding all other activities in the region)? 

M.J.: I think that the present regime is really good and it has proved its worth, so I don’t see any reason for this. But it is really up to the eight Arctic states to decide that. But in my opinion this regime has functioned well and there is no reason to do that. The Arctic states are working closely with observer states ­12 non-Arctic states are now observers. For example, they are now participating in the mitigation of black carbon emissions.

RD: Does including non-Arctic countries help the decision-making process?

M.J.: Yes, I would say that. I expect that it will become even clearer in the future when participation of observer states will strengthen.

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RD: How do you see the role of Russia in the Council?

M.J.: Russia has been very active in the Arctic Council from the very beginning: It participated in all the working groups and a very big part of the work in the Council takes place in the six working groups and Russia has also been leading some of the task forces. For example, Russia was co-leading the task force that drafted a new agreement on scientific cooperation, so I would say Russia’s participation has been all in all very proactive. Of source, one could say that Russia and other members could be more active, but overall I would say that cooperation is functioning very well today.