The Future of the Arctic: A Key to Global Sustainability

The USACOR Report forecasts that by 2050 the Arctic will become the major supplier of energy to the world, in particular oil and natural gas, and natural resources such as mineral water. In the coming decades, the population in the Arctic region is projected to increase significantly due to the expansion of exploration for resources. The Report recommends that a Zero emission policy be implemented throughout the Arctic area for water emissions into the seas, rivers, or estuaries and oceans. The Report recommends that the Arctic Council guarantees safe navigation and environmental protection, establishing a Fund to cover expenses to purchase icebreakers and towards the cost of the personnel in order to assist commercial navigation in the Arctic region. The Arctic Council shall also issue environmental rules to regulate the mineral exploitation in the region and ensure that the wildlife is protected and that the exploitation of resources is conducted in a sustainable manner.

1. Legal and Political Issues
1.1 Political status of the Arctic
Throughout its entire history, the Arctic has been a relatively peaceful region. Prior to World War II and the Cold War, the Arctic’s political and economic development was primarily influenced by indigenous peoples as well as European explorers and colonizers.
The Arctic Council (founded in 1996) has sought to increase cooperative efforts among its member states — Canada, Denmark (representing both Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States. The Nordic Council has also addressed and worked on similar issues as the Arctic Council.*
Both the Arctic Council and the Nordic Council have worked to improve cooperation among their members in the areas of environmental protection and sustainable development. In 2011, the Arctic Council member states signed the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement, the first binding treaty concluded under the Council’s auspices. This year, the Arctic Council member states are negotiating a second binding agreement on oil spills in the Arctic.
While other organizations exist to provide regional cooperation and stability, the Arctic Council has the greatest potential to act as a forum for future economic development and trade, security cooperation, and diplomatic resolution of territorial sovereignty issues.
Furthermore, non-Arctic countries have expressed interest in participating in the activities of the Arctic Council, in particular, China that presented a formal petition to become an Observer in the Arctic Council.

1.2 Disputes in the Arctic
Boundary disputes between sovereign nations of the Arctic which are currently pending include these disputes:

  1. Between Canada and the United States over a pie-shaped area extending from the eastern side of Prudhoe Bay into the Canadian Basin;
  2. Between Canada and Greenland/Denmark over the boundary from the northern end of Baffin Bay northward from the Canadian Ellesmere Island and the north shore of Greenland towards the southern edge of the Lomonosov seabed ridge; as well as over Hans Island in the Nares Straits, a sea passage between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Greenland.
  3. Between Denmark/Greenland and Norway over the boundary between the Greenland and Iceland seabed, east of Greenland/Denmark through the Greenland Sea and west of the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago.

A number of boundary disputes have been resolved. The dispute between Denmark and Norway over the continental shelf boundary between the Faroe Islands, Denmark, and mainland Norway was settled in a bilateral agreement in 1979. The controversy over the seabed boundary between Iceland and Jan Mayen, Norway, was settled through an international conciliation panel in 198l. The dispute between Iceland and Norway over the continental shelf between Jan Mayen, Norway, and Greenland/Denmark was resolved by the International Court of Justice in 1993. On September 17, 2010, Norway and the Russian Federation resolved the decades-old conflict over the disputed area in the Barents Sea, between Svalbard archipelago and the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. The agreement divided the disputed territory equally with plans to jointly develop boundary resources, which include an estimated 38 to 40 billion barrels of oil.

The Lomonosov Ridge controversy illustrates how a number of jurisdictional factors can interplay in a single dispute. In 2001, the Russian Federation submitted its claim to the extended continental shelf, including the Lomonosov Ridge, an under-sea protuberance that runs from the northern edge of the New Siberian Islands across the North Pole to the north-eastern edge of the Canadian Ellesmere Island and the north-western border of Greenland/Denmark, just north of the Amundsen Basin. The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf has not decided the issue, but has referred the Russian Federation back to collecting scientific data that will be used to support or to deny their claim. The Russian Federation is in the process of submitting an amended claim by 2013.

The Northwest Passage Dispute is, in some sense, a boundary dispute, but more profoundly is a dispute over sovereign rights versus international rights in the various classes of maritime regions described by U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and indeed, a referendum on the legitimacy of UNCLOS itself. Specifically, the Northwest Passage dispute concerns the extent to which the waters of the northern Canadian Archipelago are international and the extent to which Canada is entitled to exercise its sovereignty over the waters of the Northwest Passage. Interestingly, in this dispute, the antagonists are the United States and Canada, two close allies. Historically, the United States as a marine power has plied the waters of the Northwest Passage as international waters. With the advent of UNCLOS and the extension of sovereign boundaries into what were once high seas, Canada has claimed sovereignty over the water between the islands of its northern archipelago. Nevertheless, under the terms of Parts II, III, IV and V of UNCLOS, the vessels of all nations have rights of innocent passage, not only through Straits, sovereign Exclusive Economic Zones and Contiguous Areas of coastal nations, but also through the twelve-nautical-mile Territorial Seas. However, if the northern boundary of Canada is taken to be the farthest extent of its most remote archipelago islands, then the enclosed waters become Internal Waters and so subject to the absolute sovereignty of Canada.

1.3 The Future of Greenland
A substantial development in the field of mineral exploitation can be found in Greenland. Over one thousand years after the Viking explorer Erik the Red gave it its current pleasant name to attract settlers, Greenland is becoming an important strategic land for both North America and Europe.

In 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that there may be as much as 47 billion barrels of oil offshore Greenland, starting a new wave of oil exploration in the world’s largest island. In 2008, the USGS reported that the Arctic could contain about 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas resources.

Oil and natural gas are not the only strategic commodities found in Greenland. According to Greenland Mining Services, a private mining company based in Nuuk, rocks from Greenlandic mines sent to laboratories for analysis have in most cases been shown to contain traces of uranium. Tests have revealed that radioactive substance is present all over the country.

Another important resource present in Greenland is drinkable water. A recent USGS report states that the largest source of freshwater on Earth, 7 million mi3, is stored in glaciers and icecaps, mainly located in the Polar Regions and in Greenland, in contrast with two million mi3 stored in aquifers below ground, and just 60,000 mi3 stored in lakes, inland seas and rivers. The Ilulissat Glacier in Western Greenland is one of the fastest and most active glaciers in the world and produces 10% of all Greenland’s ice fields, corresponding to around 35 billion tons of ice a year.

Greenland is renegotiating its relationship with Denmark, which has ruled the island since 1775. A non-binding referendum on Greenland’s autonomy was held on November 25th 2008 and was passed with 75% approval. There are two main obstacles to the island’s independence: Greenland’s need for Danish economic subsidies and the percentage of Danish royalties on Greenland’s resources. Greenland has full control over the issuance of mining licenses but Denmark currently receives half of the revenue from oil and mineral resources, a percentage that Greenland is trying to reduce.

Denmark remains responsible for Greenland’s foreign affairs and defense. But Greenland’s claim over Hans Island against Canada is an issue of foreign policy dealt directly by Greenland rather than Denmark.1

There is a high likelihood that Greenland will become a new independent country within 5 or 10 years.

The island’s independence and its potential ability to supply North America with essential resources such as oil, water and uranium are good arguments in favor of its access to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Free trade with NAFTA countries would produce dramatic benefits to the Greenlandic population in terms of access to low cost medicine and technology manufactured in the USA and Canada, as well as inexpensive textile products from Mexico. Greenland has been so far reluctant to enter free trade agreements to protect its fishing industry. For this reason, it withdrew from the European Economic Community in 1985. But the new mineral discoveries have the ability to transform the ice-capped island into Saudi Arabia of the Arctic, an economic phenomenon that would inevitably increase its population and economic dimension. In this case, the current protectionism would be replaced with free and fair-trade policies that are more appropriate to foster Greenland’s economic development. If this happens, Greenland can either join NAFTA and enter a bilateral free trade agreement with the European Union (as Mexico did), or establish bilateral free trade agreements with both the NAFTA countries and the European Union.

Another important issue is security. As an independent country, it would be in Greenland’s interest to join NATO and the Arctic Council. Denmark’s position in the Arctic Council would not automatically transfer to Greenland. Therefore, Greenland would have to join both organizations as a new member.

Because of Greenland’s geostrategic importance, the United States would have all the interest in inviting Greenland to be a member of NATO for negotiating the installment of a missile-defense system on the island.

Francesco Stipo, Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science; Chair, Legal & Political Committee, US Association, Club of Rome
Anitra Thorhaug, Chair, Energy & Resources Committee, US Association, Club of Rome
Ryan Jackson, Chair, Health, Population & Religion Committee, US Association, Club of Rome
Keith Butler, Roberta Gibbs, James Gray, Philip Marshall, Andrew Oerke, Marian Simion, Lockey White, Bernard Zak. This article is an excerpt taken from the 2012 report of the US Association of the Club of Rome. The full report is available on the website
† See
* See
1. “Greenland Takes a Step Towards Autonomy” Spiegel Online 26 November, 2008,1518,592880,00.html

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