Tine Sundtoft, Minister of Climate and Environment at the Arctic Biodiversity Congress. Photo: IISD Reporting ServicesTine Sundtoft, Minister of Climate and Environment at the Arctic Biodiversity Congress. Photo: IISD Reporting ServicesTine Sundtoft, Minister of Climate and Environment

Plenary address to the Arctic Biodiversity Congress

December 2, 2014, Trondheim, Norway

Ladies and gentlemen!

In May this year I visited Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard, at 79 degrees north. At this time of the year, the fjord should be covered by ice and filled with ringed seals. On the sea ice in front of the glaciers snow should pile up around the icebergs to make perfect shelter for the seals to breed.

Sadly, during my visit I only saw open water where the ice used to be. Today there is no stable sea-ice to trap icebergs and accumulate snow for making dens. As a result, the ringed seal pups are left unprotected. They become easy prey for polar bears, arctic foxes and gulls.

Ten years ago, due to warmer water, the winter sea ice almost disappeared from the west coast of Svalbard. Since then, hardly any seal pups survive their first year in this part of Svalbard.

I will not enter a discussion on whether this is due to global warming or natural cycles in the Gulf Stream – or a combination. But it certainly demonstrates how vulnerable Arctic species are to climate change.

Arctic biodiversity has been the foundation for traditional ways of life for thousands of years. In sub Arctic seas, it sustains some of the world’s most important commercial fisheries. It is also a valuable asset for tourism and recreation.

The Arctic and its natural surroundings cannot be reduced to mere economics. Arctic biodiversity is an invaluable source of inspiration and enjoyment for people in the Arctic, and throughout the world. This Congress is a key response to the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment. This landmark report of the Arctic Council was presented at the ministerial meeting in Kiruna last year. It is the result of the efforts of 252 scientists and holders of traditional knowledge.

Many of the contributors are here today. I would like to thank all of you for presenting such a timely and comprehensive high quality assessment. In a time of rapidly changing climate and expanding industrial activities, we need this solid common knowledge base to guide our actions.

The Arctic Biodiversity Assessment has established a set of recommendations for further work. Canada and Norway has taken the lead on developing an implementation plan for those recommendations. They will be discussed and developed further here in Trondheim.

Climate change is by far the most serious threat to Arctic biodiversity. This key finding is well documented in the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment. It is also backed by the latest IPCC report. This report predicts an annual mean temperature increase in the Arctic of seven to eleven degrees towards the end of this century - if effective mitigation is not implemented.

Many Arctic species risk extinction due to global warming. This risk increases as changes in climate interact with other stressors.

Most plants cannot migrate fast enough to keep up with such rapid warming. And migration to the north is blocked by the Arctic Ocean.

The expected result is that some high Arctic species and ecosystems could disappear altogether. Or they will remain only as isolated fragments, in high mountain areas or on Arctic islands.

Polar bears and other species linked to sea ice will find little comfort in the projections of the IPCC. Whithout deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades, a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer is likely before 2050.

These projections also leave some hope. With a low emission path, the summer sea-ice may persist in many parts of the Arctic. This will substantially improve the odds for long term survival of polar bears, ringed seals and other ice-dependent species.

The long term fate of Arctic biodiversity depends on our abilities to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. As we speak, the twentieth session of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention has just started in Lima, Peru. What I hope for when I go there next week, is a clear draft of the universal agreement to be signed in Paris next year. We also need a shared determination by all states to deliver significant contributions to build a low carbon future. Industry, academics, NGOs and others must join in to provide solutions that can turn potential into reality.

The Arctic States have a particular responsibility to ensure sustainable management of the Arctic. Mitigation is an important issue for the Arctic Council. Reduced emissions of black carbon and methane from Arctic states could slow Arctic warming. I am pleased to note that the Arctic states are working closely together in order to reduce these emissions.

If we do not succeed with mitigation, the long term prospects for Arctic biodiversity look grim. If we do succeed, polar bears and other high Arctic species have a fair chance. In both cases, we will have to cooperate to manage Arctic biodiversity, and adapt to changes as best as we can.

Climate change makes the Arctic more accessible to industrial activities. This, in turn, bring other stressors to the region. Adaptive management will not limit climate change, but it may limit other stressors.

Adaptive management requires good understanding of the changes happening now. It also requires capacity to predict future changes as a basis for planning and adaptation. As a politician, I would like to know as much as possible about the likely consequences of political decisions made today. Will there still be polar bears on Svalbard if we succeed in limiting global warming to two degrees? What about four degrees? Where will the biodiversity hotspots be in 2040? What will happen to fish stocks in the Barents Sea? How can mitigation reduce the risks?

Everyone understands that projections and scenarios are uncertain. But we need them to assess the risks of various policy options. This is the only way we as politicians can make informed decisions.

So this is my challenge to you: Try to draw pictures of the future that are relevant and useful for planning and adaptation. Pictures that show the likely future consequences of political decisions, and that are based on science.

In April next year the foreign ministers of the Arctic States will sign a new ministerial declaration in Iqaluit in Canada. Hopefully, it will set priorities for future cooperation that will promote long term conservation of Arctic biodiversity. It should reflect our common need to improve our understanding of the changing Arctic. It should also reflect how we can adapt. But first of all, it should address how we can act today to reduce the risks for Arctic biodiversity, and communities which depend on its sustainable use. I am confident that this Congress will provide valuable input in this regard.

The US priorities for its coming Arctic Council chairmanship include addressing the impacts of climate change in the Arctic, enhancing Arctic science, and responsible stewardship of the Arctic Ocean. Climate smart conservation and knowledge about Arctic biodiversity are at the heart of these issues. Advice on how to link these priorities to the work of the Arctic Council working groups should be an important output from this Congress.

The Iqaluit meeting will be important. However, the most important event for Arctic biodiversity next year will be the climate summit in Paris. We need to reduce the risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally. By doing so, we also reduce the risk for Arctic biodiversity. We cannot afford to fail.

Thank You!  

- Tine Sundtoft, Minister of Climate and Environment, Norway

December 2, 2014

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