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Topic: Ecology
Region: Russia, Arctic
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Elena Norkina

LLM Public International Law — International Environmental and Energy Law, NRU HSE

This spring, locals of the Russian Arctic coastal area witnessed a major break-up of ice that took place half a month earlier than usual. Vast masses of ice floated down the Yenisey river towards the Kara Sea. The same situation was observed throughout the Arctic area where major rivers experi-enced “earlier than normal break-up of ice.”

Usually, the ice melting process reaches its peak by the end of the summer, turning frozen seawater back into liquid. After that, the seawater begins to freeze again. While some ice "holds fast to a coastline,” pack ice continues its journey up to the High Arctic, developing into much thicker ice. Such multiyear ice does not melt completely due to its thickness and low salinity level, whereas thinner first-year ice is unlikely to survive the subsequent summer.

Defined by climate conditions of the region, this process repeatedly occurred for many decades. However, rising temperatures in the Arctic rescheduled the usual ice drift, as well as changed a cycle of ice melting and freezing. Ice is retreating with a faster pace than it used to, and due to the warmer winters is not able to freeze back fast enough. Many climate models have shown the Arctic is likely to become completely ice-free by the year 2050.

One would say that an ice-free Arctic is good news since there’s no need for ice channeling and specific ice requirements for vessels. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a big deal if the Arctic ice was not so im-portant for regional and global climate.

Arctic sea ice works as a “natural freezer” for the Planet. Arctic ice and snow sheets have the capacity to reflect sunlight, which hits its white surfaces. It is known as the albedo ef-fect. Sea ice has a much higher albedo effect, unlike ocean waters that have only 6% of the incoming energy reflection capacity, compared with 50-70% of ice capaci-ty.

Retreating ice uncovers the dark waters of the Arctic seas and land. Thus more heat is being ab-sorbed than reflected. Consequently, as the ocean temperature ramps up, ice growth is delayed. Hence, the winter sea ice coverage is shortened, and the northern shorelines are no longer as ice-bound as they used to be. Moreover, Arctic wildlife depends on ice formation, and the loss of ice has significant consequences for such species like polar bear, walrus, narwhal, belugas and other cetaceans.

As Arctic permafrost rapidly is responding to climate change, Arctic states should do the same. The best pathway for the resilience of the Arctic states is to commit themselves to mitigation activities in accordance with the UNFCCC climate change regime. Noteworthy is that such commitments should be on a very high level in accordance with their capabilities. In any case, they should not be simply nominal as to satisfy the Paris Agreement and the UNFCCC temperature goals on paper. Climate change mitigation is a shared responsibility that calls for mutual cooperation. The global community has to bear in mind that their mitigation and adaptation activities are not only about the region. It is clearly a matter of common concern as the abrupt changes have influence on every part of the Planet.

The UNFCCC regime is global and not tailored to the Arctic in particular, hence, the resilience matter shall be decided on the regional level. The Arctic Council plays a significant role in this re-gard as it has worked closely on mitigation, adaptation and sustainable development strategies for the region via its working groups and projects. Yet resilience is greatly dependent on political will and regional policymaking on the governmental level. This is why Arctic states should work on better resilience-based management, as it is, first and foremost, a matter of local concern. Resilience is about acquiring new capabilities under the changing environmental and social conditions. Hence, a more stable, resilient system which will be able to resist different shocks and “retain its identity” should be built.

The Paris Agreement recognises that the “current need for adap-tation is significant and that greater levels of mitigation can reduce the need for additional adaptation efforts.”

Hence, Arctic states should keep in mind that successful resilience starts with responsible mitiga-tion. There is still a long way to go and many pathways to consider.


“Human civilisation has never known a time when there has not been sea ice in the Arctic in the summer. We appear to be approaching that time.”
Waleed Abdalati, former NASA Chief Scientist

This spring, locals of the Russian Arctic coastal area witnessed a major break-up of ice that took place half a month earlier than usual. Vast masses of ice floated down the Yenisey river to-wards the Kara Sea. The same situation was observed throughout the Arctic area where major rivers experienced “earlier than normal break-up of ice.”

Usually, the ice melting process reaches its peak by the end of the summer, turning frozen seawater back into liquid. After that, the seawater begins to freeze again. While some ice "holds fast to a coastline,” pack ice continues its journey up to the High Arctic, developing into much thicker ice. Such multiyear ice does not melt completely due to its thickness and low salinity level, whereas thinner first-year ice is unlikely to survive the subsequent summer.

Defined by climate conditions of the region, this process repeatedly occurred for many decades. However, rising temperatures in the Arctic rescheduled the usual ice drift, as well as changed a cycle of ice melting and freezing. Ice is retreating with a faster pace than it used to, and due to the warmer winters is not able to freeze back fast enough. Many climate models have shown the Arctic is likely to become completely ice-free by the year 2050.

One would say that an ice-free Arctic is good news since there’s no need for ice channeling and specific ice requirements for vessels. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a big deal if the Arctic ice was not so important for regional and global climate.

Arctic sea ice works as a “natural freezer” for the Planet. Arctic ice and snow sheets have the capacity to reflect sunlight, which hits its white surfaces. It is known as the albedo ef-fect. Sea ice has a much higher albedo effect, unlike ocean waters that have only 6% of the incoming energy reflection capacity, compared with 50-70% of ice capaci-ty.

Retreating ice uncovers the dark waters of the Arctic seas and land. Thus more heat is being ab-sorbed than reflected. Consequently, as the ocean temperature ramps up, ice growth is delayed. Hence, the winter sea ice coverage is shortened, and the northern shorelines are no longer as ice-bound as they used to be. Moreover, Arctic wildlife depends on ice formation, and the loss of ice has significant consequences for such species like polar bear, walrus, narwhal, belugas and other cetaceans.

Another unfortunate outcome of climate change is thawing permafrost. Arctic permafrost is a frozen layer of soil that hasn't changed for thousands of years. Since permafrost encompasses, "when it thaws, it causes the “ground surface to collapse." This winter, scientists witnessed dramatic changes in the landscape of the Canadian Arctic. Arctic tundra partly thawed and “opened up into a crater the size of a football stadium,” transforming frozen land into mud and silt.

Coastal erosion and thawing permafrost are big issues not only because of the changing land-scape, but also about the troubles caused for the Arctic population. Several Inuvialuit settlements located on the Beaufort Sea were forced to relocate as parts of the "community wash away over the years.” Some of the Arctic territories are under the threat of disappearance. Yukon’s only island, Herschel, which predominantly consists of permafrost, “is receding by roughly one metre per year.” These drastic events are observed all over the Arctic coastlines. The citizens of the Alaskan town of Utquavgik have to build artificial walls using sand-bags, as the town is under the threat of disappearance due to the vast sea ice loss and coastal ero-sion.

Thawing permafrost on Svalbard is “literally destabilising homes” in the archipelago’s town of Longyearbyen. Tra-ditional houses were built on wooden pillars, but since the ground became so unstable, the pillars have to be removed and replaced with steel ones. The famous Svalbard Seed Vault is suffering as well. The ground underneath it has moved, the entrance has been flooded several times, so it was rebuilt. Now it has to be frozen artificially in order to avoid its further erosion.

Moreover, because of climate change, Arctic communities are losing their identity. Some of them are sufficiently dependent on Arctic nature. Reindeer-breeders, hunters and fisherman all suf-fer as a result of rapid climate change. Neither people nor nature can keep up with the pace of the changes.

At first sight, the aforementioned issues mostly comprise a matter of local concern. However, thawing Arctic permafrost has an international dimension. As permafrost thaws, it releases a “shocking amount of dangerous gas-es,” like CO2 and methane. Both act as accelerators of climate change and have the potential to double or even triple existing IPCC climate projections.

The urgent necessity to confront the climate change issue has been widely recognised by the international community. Particularly, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted the importance of the ocean and cryosphere for the global and regional climate. Moreo-ver, the report emphasised that such changes have a negative impact on people of the Arctic, as the region is not merely "a key part of the global climate system" but also a homeland to many people and wildlife. Thus, the interplay between local character and commonality of the problem calls for a comprehen-sive approach that will take into account the regional perspective. Just as changes in the Arctic can-not be ignored any longer, they can also not be completely stopped. This is why Arctic adaptation and resilience have become major goals. The core elements of resilience in the Arctic include mitiga-tion of climate change and its adverse effects, as well as adaptation to such changes. So how is this goal being addressed by the international climate change regime?

Arctic Resilience as a Matter of Common Concern — Mitigation Commitments under the UN-FCCC

According to the Arctic Resilience Interim Report, resilience refers to the “capacity to cope with disturbances and recover in such a way that they maintain their core function and identi-ty." It also relates to the capacity to learn from a changing environment and adapt to changes, as well as the ability to transform. Put simply, resilience can be defined as the ability to adapt and regain a stable state after present or continuous stress. Climate change is indeed continuous stress that affects human life and misbalances eco- and bio-systems.

When it comes to the Arctic, scientists worldwide agree that that “Arctic resilience depends heavily on urgent and ambitious reductions in GHG.” GHG emissions “are the most significant driver” of climate change worldwide, and the Arctic is no exception. The international community has made a commitment to tackle climate change through the reduction of GHG. The Preamble of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) states that “change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind," which was further confirmed by the Paris Agreement. The common concern of humankind is a new dynamic concept that applies to the protection of global ecological systems.

Implementing Marine Management in the Arctic Ocean. RIAC and Polar Institute Report

The nature of the concept can be understood through the explanation given by legal scholars — “issues of common concern are those that inevitably transcend the boundaries of a single state and require collective action in response.” [1] The Arctic alone is not a common con-cern of humankind itself, but rather climate change in the Arctic and its adverse effects can be viewed as a common concern that calls for global action.

Issues subject to common concern are considered to have long-lasting effects that will affect future generations. Despite the fact that the UNFCCC does not elaborate on the concept any fur-ther, the preamble of the UNFCCC highlights that the “global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation.” Furthermore, the convention provides an instrument for such cooperation embedded in a principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and re-spective capabilities (CBDRRC). The CBDRRC is arguably considered as a “conceptual flip-side [2] ” of the common concern of humankind concept. The UNFCCC does not elaborate common concern concept in its text, yet it acknowledges the global character of the prob-lem that calls for global cooperation. Unlike the UNFCCC, the Paris Agreement recognises climate change as a common concern and further connects it with other climate change-related issues, such as human rights and sustainable development. Both legal instruments employ the CBDRRC princi-ple in order to maintain cooperation on climate change issues.

The CBDRRC Under the UNFCCC regime

The central idea of the UNFCCC regime is that, unlike the traditional approach to international legal instruments when states undertake the same amount of responsibilities, the concept of CBDRRC is a fundamental principle of the international climate change regime established by the UNFCCC and succeed by the Paris Agreement. The key idea is that climate change has a common impact. However, not all nations are affected to the same degree. Therefore, there is a need to dif-ferentiate states’ responsibilities since “not all nations should contribute equally to alleviate the problem [3] .” The logic is that developed countries bear greater responsibility for climate change as they “contributed a larger share to historical GHG emissions [4] .” The “historical emissions’’ serve as a basis for differentiation of the volume of responsibilities burden. Hence, under the common by differentiated responsibilities, the UNFCCC requires developed countries to take the leading role in mitigating climate change. The respective capabilities on the other side reflect the position of developed countries, as the burden for climate change should be divided between them and developing countries. Therefore technological, admin-istrative, and financial capabilities also serve as a basis for differentiation.

On the basis of differentiated commitments, the UNFCCC divided parties into three groups. The first group is Annex I that merges industrialised countries that were parties to OECD in 1992 and economies in transition. Annex II stitches together only OECD members included in Annex I. They are required to financially support developing countries in their emissions reduction activities estab-lished by the UNFCCC. Their contribution shall be determined by states on their own. Finally, Non-Annex I consists of developing countries that are con-sidered victims as they now suffer from developed countries’ economic activities undertaken in the past. Unlike developed countries, developing countries have less strict reporting obligations. They must report on the basis of funding for the preparation of the reports they get.

The UNFCCC recognises that some developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change and its adverse effects, whereas other developing countries are most vulnerable to economic impacts caused by climate change.

The Arctic is clearly vulnerable to such changes. However, it does not fall within the vulnerable developing countries group. The reason for that is that by definition, the Arctic five, precisely the Russian Federation, Norway, Denmark, the USA and Canada, are listed under Annex I. Moreover, the Arctic eight, which includes, along with the aforementioned states, Finland, Iceland and Swe-den, are also Annex I countries. In accordance with the UNFCCC and Kyoto protocol, they have undertaken economy-wide caps for their national GHG emissions, whereas Non-Annex I countries have mainly concentrated on specific projects. This system has never been intended to provide sup-port specifically tailored for the Arctic region.

Mitigation Commitments Under the Paris Agreement

Pursuing the ultimate objective of the UNFCCC Paris Agreement 2015 reaffirms its loyalty to the fundamental principles established by the Convention. Precise-ly, the guiding principle is CBDRRC however, there is an adding “in the light of different national circumstances.” To achieve the ultimate goal of keeping the temperatures “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”, the Paris Agreement obliges states to “prepare, communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve.” Na-tionally determined contributions (NDC) are the core of the Paris Agreement as it serves as a reflec-tion of national mitigation strategies. The idea behind the NDCs is that all parties to Paris Agree-ment shall contribute to the achievement of the ultimate goal of the UNFCCC, despite them being developing or developed countries. The important feature of the Paris Agreement and its NDC sys-tem is that it preserves the privilege of sovereign autonomy [5] as states are al-lowed to define their pledges in accordance with their national circumstances. Even though there is no defined amount of contributions, national pledges shall reflect “the "highest possible ambition” of each state. Parties to the Paris Agreement are obliged to communicate their NDCs every five years. While they communicate their contributions, they shall provide the ." Further, NDCs are submitted to the public registry that is maintained by the secretariat. NDCs are subject to progression review, and each successive NDC shall be more ambitious than the current one.

Arctic states have already communicated their first NDCs to the registry. Russia, Denmark and Norway use 1990 as a base year (reference period), whereas Canada and the US refer to 2005. Denmark aims to reduce GHG emissions by 80-95% below the 2005 rate by 2050. Norway’s goal is to reduce GHG emissions by 50-55% by 2030, which is even more ambitious than Denmark’s, as the latter is 20 years ahead. Canada sets the more realistic goal of reducing GHG emissions by 30% below the 2005 rate by 2030. The situation of the USA and Russia is rather interesting. Russia finally ratified the Paris Agreement in 2019 and conse-quently committed itself to the NDC. The target established by the Russian NDC is GHG re-duction below 1990 by 2030, however, it is rather vague. The majority of experts agree that Russia is likely to meet its GHG emissions targets simply because they are extremely weak. Russia mostly relies on the absorbing capacity of forests as a mitigation measure. Forest fires emit a fair amount of GHG, thus Russia “started a big campaign against” such fires in order to fulfill its Paris Agree-ment pledge. Yet preventive fires that quite often lead to massive fires all over the state still happen.

Under the Obama Administration, the USA committed itself to the long-term goal to reduce GHG emissions by 80% by 2050 and 26-28% by 2025. However, in 2017 Trump’s Administration announced the intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which will be effective on the 4th of November, 2020. This decision was based on the "unfair economic burden" on American taxpayers. Even though the future of the Paris accord remains to be determined after the elections, Trump has already "cut the federal budget on climate change policies" and climate-related research. Scientists project that the effect of this deci-sion will have drastic consequences for the climate in the US and beyond.

Overall, GHG reduction policies of the Arctic states are characterised by experts as insufficient so far, especially with Russia’s attitude and the US decision to free itself from the environmental burden. Obviously, the Arctic needs a stronger commitment of the adjacent states in their mitigation management.

Arctic Resilience as Matter of Local Concern — Adaptation under the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement is aimed to “increase the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience.” Hereby, it recognises the need for adaptation in order to pro-mote resilience as we cannot turn back time and completely return to the pre-industrial environmen-tal state. At the same time, the Paris Agreement highlights that adaptation is “global challenge faced by all with local, subnational, national, regional and international dimensions” and, thus, cooperation on all levels is necessary. So, generally speaking, adaptation refers to existing resources and their preservation.

In the light of the Paris Agreement, adaptation should be country-driven and, on the one hand, should be based on best scientific knowledge and, on the other hand, it should be guided by tradi-tional and indigenous knowledge. The latter is very important for the Arctic region as the indige-nous population approximately comprises 9% of the total Arctic population.

The Paris Agreement obliges states to undertake adaptation activities and requires the imple-mentation of adaptation actions. Such activities may be in the form of.” The list is not exhaustive, hence parties may include other appropriate activities. States are required to submit and further up-date adaptation communication which must be recorded in a public registry. Adaptation communi-cations shall reflect priorities of the States, their implementation plans, and support their needs, ad-aptation plans and actions. It is noteworthy that the Paris Agreement highlights that continuous and enhanced international support must be provided for developing countries, whereas, yet Arctic states fall short of that list. In relation to developed countries, the Paris Agreement states that par-ties should engage in cooperation in order to enhance adaptation actions.

Adaptation cycle under the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement climate regime can be presented as fol-lows:

Hereby, States should begin with an assessment of vulnerability and risks and prioritise certain actions with special attention to.” Secondly, states are expected to formulate and implement nation-al adaptation plans and adaptation measures according to such plans. Finally, states should monitor and evaluate adaptation activities, such as plans, policies, programmes and actions.

Apart from Arctic states’ individual commitments, adaptation activities have been undertaken by the Arctic Council. It has committed itself to adaptation via a variety of programs on monitoring, as-sessment and issue recommendations that can be equally implemented by the Arctic states and on the international level. For example, the Arctic Black Carbon Case Studies Platform and the Tundra Pro-ject, conduct research on clean energy solutions and further integrate such solutions into com-munities. The Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) works on different dimen-sions, such as the Arctic environment, economic and social development, and health and cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples. SDWG’s work is divided between certain thematic areas, however they are all aimed at the sustainable development of the region. There are many featured projects under the SDWG auspice, such as the Blue Bioeconomy in the Arctic project. The project is fo-cused on smart utilisation of marine living resources and the use of renewable aquatic natural re-sources. In other words, it aims to provide sustainable business solutions for the region.

GRID-Arendal is another example of adaptation planning that ensures well-being and the sustainable development of the Arc-tic coastal communities. Besides, many international companies and NGOs are involved in adapta-tion planning for the Arctic, varying from IT integration technologies to community-based adapta-tion programs, new education possibilities and health care system renovation.

Hence, adaptation activities have many different forms, and nothing within the climate change regime precludes Arctic states from developing new adaptation solutions relying on the best existing practices.

The Future of Resilience in the Arctic

Arctic communities need stable earth beneath their feet both literally and metaphorically. The international climate change regime provides important tools for building resilience in the Arctic. Current mitigation and adaptation commitments established by the Paris Agreement are the core elements of successful resilience, yet they are insufficient to make sure Arctic ecosystems and peo-ple can survive the changes and transform successfully.

As Arctic permafrost is rapidly responding to climate change, Arctic states should do the same. The best pathway for the resilience of the Arctic states is to commit themselves to mitigation activi-ties in accordance with the UNFCCC climate change regime. Noteworthy is that such commitments should be on a very high level in accordance with their capabilities. In any case, they should not be simply nominal as to satisfy the Paris Agreement and the UNFCCC temperature goals on paper. Climate change mitigation is a shared responsibility that calls for mutual cooperation. The global community has to bear in mind that their mitigation and adaptation activities are not only about the region. It is clearly a matter of common concern as the abrupt changes have influence on every part of the Planet.

The UNFCCC regime is global and not tailored to the Arctic in particular, hence, the resilience matter shall be decided on the regional level. The Arctic Council plays a significant role in this re-gard as it has worked closely on mitigation, adaptation and sustainable development strategies for the region via its working groups and projects. Yet resilience is greatly dependent on political will and regional policymaking on the governmental level. This is why Arctic states should work on bet-ter resilience-based management, as it is, first and foremost, a matter of local concern. Resilience is about acquiring new capabilities under the changing environmental and social conditions. Hence, a more stable, resilient system which will be able to resist different shocks and “retain its identity” should be built.

The Paris Agreement recognises that the “current need for adap-tation is significant and that greater levels of mitigation can reduce the need for additional adapta-tion efforts.”

Hence, Arctic states should keep in mind that successful resilience starts with responsible miti-gation. There is still a long way to go and many pathways to consider.

1. Dinah Shelton, Common Concern of Humani-ty, Environmental Law and Policy 39/2 (2009), 83.

2. Daniel Bodansky, Jutta Brunnée, Lavanya Rajamani International Cli-mate Change Law, (OUP) 2017, p 52

3. Daniel Bodansky, Jutta Brunnée, Lavanya Rajamani International Cli-mate Change Law, (OUP) 2017, p 124

4. ibid p 124

5. Daniel Bodansky, Jutta Brunnée, Lavanya Rajamani International Cli-mate Change Law, (OUP) 2017, p 212


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