Scotland’s First Minister: We’re closer to the Arctic than London


First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon addresses the audience at Arctic Circle with Iceland’s former president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, moderating.

On Friday, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon delivered a speech in an unlikely venue: the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik, Iceland. The event, the largest annual gathering on Arctic affairs, attracts delegations from the eight Arctic states of the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. But each year since Arctic Circle’s inception in 2013, officials from countries south of the Arctic have also used the assembly as a platform to position themselves as “near-Arctic” states. Or in Scotland’s case, the “nearest-Arctic state,” as Sturgeon proclaimed, to laughs from the audience.

“I’m going to claim that prize today for Scotland because the north of Scotland is closer to the Arctic than it is to London,” declared Sturgeon, famous for her role in pushing for Scottish independence during the referendum in 2015. “That explains why we increasingly want to build closer collaborations with our Arctic neighbors.”

Those Arctic neighbors seem to stretch far and wide. She described, “Scotland’s ties with Iceland are mirrored in our connections to many Arctic states today: Ancestral ties to Canada, and trading ties to Korea and Japan.” Notably, she placed the Asian states of Korea and Japan directly in the category of “Arctic states.” Since both South Korea and Japan have made showy presentations at Arctic Circle about their polar interests in recent years, perhaps all the posturing does pay off.

The Scottish First Minister also tried to shore up her country’s Arctic credentials by drawing on historical connections. She described, “Scotland and Iceland share ties that go back centuries. The early history of the Orkney Islands was chronicled in the Icelandic sagas more than 800 years ago.” More recently, she described, “In 1874, the national anthem of Iceland was composed in Edinburgh. Scotland also gave Iceland another anthem: your football supporters’ Viking chant.” Football proved a recurring theme in her speech and one that sat well with the Icelanders in the crowd, fresh off a last-minute victory the night before in a World Cup qualifier against Finland.

“Scotland may not quite geographically be part of Arctic Circle, but in our heritage, culture, policy approach, and weather, there is much that we share,” she noted, as heavy rain pummeled down outside. Sturgeon drew attention to how Nordic social policy has inspired Scotland. She referenced her government’s plans to imitate Finland’s practice of giving a baby box to new parents stocked with items needed to provide an infant with a decent start in life.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon meets with journalists at a press roundtable at Arctic Circle in Reykjavik, Iceland.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon meets with journalists at a press roundtable at Arctic Circle in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Sturgeon also emphasized the shared interests of Scotland and the Arctic states in green energy. Scotland has the largest planned tidal stream project anywhere in the world, while the world’s largest floating wind farm is also being developed by Norwegian company Statoil off Scotland’s North Sea coast. “Scotland’s North Sea can sometimes seem peripheral to rest of world, but I think it’s wonderful that they’re now at cutting edge of renewable energy,” she remarked. The rumors currently circulating suggesting that industrial espionage and burglary may be responsible for the development of an ocean wave generator off the coast of China that closely resembles a Scottish prototype built years before underscore the country’s expertise in the sector.

Sturgeon called energy efficiency a “national infrastructure priority” and spoke of “big opportunities in areas such as renewable heat and developing a circular economy” – ideas that likely resonated with members of the Nordic Council in the audience, an intergovernmental forum that has similar goals.

Can Scotland pull a “Reverse Greenland”?

The issue on everybody’s minds, of course, was Brexit. Sturgeon avoided directly mentioning the loaded word during her speech. She instead said,

“We welcome the EU’s practical benefits. For all its imperfections, we also admire the principal behind it – and this gathering here today: We like the idea of independent countries working together for a common good. And we believe that on some issues – and climate change is a perfect issue – 28 independent nations working together can have a bigger impact than 1 alone ever can. People in Scotland voted clearly, by 62% to 38%, to stay in the EU. We are looking for a way to retain our EU membership and benefits.”

The positive parallels she drew between the EU and the Arctic Circle confirmed her dedication to multilateralism and dialogue. At a time when many of the world’s countries seem to be retreating into isolationism, the Arctic defiantly remains a region of international cooperation. Russia and the West continue to work together to tackle issues like pollution, search and rescue, and polar shipping, while unlikely partnerships have formed between countries like Iceland and China.

Unsurprisingly, in both the question and answer session and press round table that followed Sturgeon’s speech, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union dominated questions about Scotland’s Arctic strategy. The First Minister’s stance seemed to have softened since September, when she launched a second referendum on Scottish independence as a consequence of Brexit. At Arctic Circle, she offered, “I’ve been very clear since the referendum took place. My overriding objective is to find ways to protect Scotland’s interests in light of the vote. Make no mistake, those interests are very much at risk. Research, jobs, investment, trade with Europe and the wider world. There is a real and present danger to being removed from the EU and in particular the single market. We are seeking to work with the UK government to square the circle and allow the rest of the UK minus Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London to exit the EU.”

Greenland Foreign Minister Vittus Qujaukitsoq asked about the possibility of Scotland pulling a so-called “Reverse Greenland.” She quipped that the topic has become fodder for discussion in the “pubs and clubs of Scotland.” It may be hard to believe that many Scottish know about this quirk of history, when Greenland voted to withdraw from the EU in 1982 after the Kingdom of Denmark, of which it is a member, joined in 1973. But the historical precedent is still relevant. A “reverse Greenland” would entail Scotland remaining in the European Union while England leaves. “Reverse Greenland would not necessarily work,” Sturgeon cautioned. “There are obvious differences. Britain is obviously the larger part. It may be that none of these options work and we have to consider becoming independent again.”

If Sturgeon’s speech at Arctic Circle is any indication, an independent Scotland might very well attempt to strengthen its ties with other Arctic states. When asked in a media round table to explain the sudden entrance of Scotland into Arctic affairs, she said, “I wouldn’t say it’s sudden. We’ve always seen shared interests – you don’t have to spend very long to see that the issues are very relevant.” She cited climate change and energy as two issues on which it “makes sense for us to collaborate.”

Responding to a question about whether Scotland’s independent foray into Arctic affairs would affect Britain’s past attempts to position itself as an Arctic nation, as it did with much pomp and circumstance at Arctic Circle in 2014, Sturgeon answered, “The UK has been proactive when it comes to Arctic relations, but simply put, our Arctic neighbors are closer than London. When we come here, the perspective shifts. We’re no longer the periphery – we’re the gateway to Europe.”

The Scottish First Minister made one final attempt to distinguish her country from an England that is turning inward, sealing its borders, and perhaps even seeking to leave the EU single market as it veers towards “hard Brexit” under Prime Minister Theresa May. Sturgeon stressed, “Scotland’s a small country and has always been outward looking. We’ve spread ourselves over the globe,” she stressed. Now, it may be northward looking, too.

Russia’s Yamal Peninsula reveals the paradox of sustainable Arctic development


Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug Governor Dmitry Kobylkin addresses the Arctic Circle assembly through a translator as Anton Vasiliev, Russian Ambassador to Iceland, sits on stage.

For the fourth year in a row, Arctic Circle, the world’s largest gathering on Arctic issues convened in Iceland’s capital. Headline speakers at the Reykjavik event included United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Almost every speaker addressing the 2,000-person conference touched upon how climate change is dramatically altering the Arctic environment. Yet a presentation by the governor of Russia’s Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (YNAO), a gas-rich region home to half a million people that occupies a fifth of the country’s Arctic territory, stood out from the rest.

Governor Kobylkin showed a slick 15-minute long video that lauded the accomplishments of the region’s people and industries. The movie made clear that even if polished productions have replaced the crude propaganda of the Soviet era, the same celebratory undertones remain. An unaccented English voiceover intoned, “Yamal promotes safe development, in the broadest sense of the word” – a definition broad enough, apparently, to include Arctic oil and gas development. In between clips of galloping reindeer (“the world’s largest flock”) and smiling indigenous peoples, industrial facilities were shown gloriously spewing steam and chemicals into the frosty air. Most of the shots were taken in winter, when a white layer of snow offers a façade of purity to even the most polluting of complexes in the Arctic.

Inadvertently, the video revealed the uncomfortable paradox of mankind’s supposed ability to sustainably develop Arctic fossil fuels. The audience looked on skeptically at the Russian video showing reindeer herders and natural gas facilities peacefully coexisting. But so many of the other speakers at Arctic Circle presented the same contradictions, only in a more nuanced way. Empty proclamations like “connecting markets brings opportunities” and vague suggestions of “smart resource extraction” may not have made the audience as perplexed as the Russian video did. But that’s only because they were delivered in the familiar and acceptable language of sustainable development rather than in the form of a heavily produced Russian video that may have fit in just as seamlessly, if only it had benefited from a better editor.

A Russian belief that human labor, not climate, is transforming the Arctic

The Yamal presentation was also distinct in its downplaying of the notion of climate change as responsible for opening up the Arctic. Although climactic explanations of Arctic development are par for the course at conferences like Arctic Circle, Russia’s extraction and export of its northern resources started well before global warming drew the world’s attention north. For Russia, developing the Arctic, a region responsible for a reported 20% of the country’s GDP, has been and will continue to be crucial for its economy – “sustainable” or “safe” development be damned.

According to Governor Dmitry Kobylkin, the tireless work of his region’s people has converted it into a modern, livable place whose resources can be exported to global markets. Through a translator, the governor explained, “Our most valuable asset is the people who have transformed this landscape into a secure and viable home.”

Yamal’s governor blithely added, “The Arctic should not be conquered, it should be made habitable.” But Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russia have all made the Arctic a place suitable for an industrial way of life precisely by conquering nature. Forced labor, innovative technologies, and sheer willpower have been key to turning places in the Russian Arctic like Yamal into major suppliers for global commodities markets. The world’s largest nickel mine, Norilsk, also lies in the country’s north.

Hard work along with domestic economic pressures have put the Yamal peninsula at the center of the development of Russia’s Arctic economy. Many in the West have cautioned against drilling Arctic oil and gas reserves. But Russia is pushing full steam ahead to develop its enormous offshore reserves, particularly as its oil fields in Western Siberia become depleted. Already, the Yamal region accounts for 20% of global natural gas production. Russia’s Prirazlomnaye offshore oil field, the first in the world north of the Arctic Circle, began international exports in 2014.

The Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas Project, China, and the new Silk Road

The regional government’s presentation at Arctic Circle exemplified Yamal’s effort to market itself as a safe and profitable place for global investment rather than the “end of the world,” as it tends to be described in the few news stories out there about the remote peninsula. If people have heard anything about Yamal, it’s likely because of an enormous crater that opened in the earth in the summer of 2014. This summer, the alarming deaths of over 2,300 reindeer in Yamal due to a release of anthrax from the melting tundra also briefly made headlines. The disease even spread to humans, sickening 13.

Climate change and industrial encroachments are jeopardizing the future of reindeer herding, still carried on by some of Yamal’s 40,000 indigenous inhabitants. As traditional practices based on close relationships with the environment struggle to adapt, Yamal is pushing forward with developing and marketing of its natural resources. During his presentation, the governor noted, “36 out of 56 strategically important projects in the Russian North are located in Yamal.”

The most important of those is the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project. Foreign investors in the multi-billion dollar project include France’s Total, China National Petroleum Corporation, and China’s recently established Silk Road Fund, which alone has lent $12 billion. The backing by the two Chinese entities is motivated by the belief that once the project comes onstream, supposedly next year, LNG will be transported from the peninsula by Korean-built ice-class tankers along Russia’s Northern Sea Route east to Asia in summer and west to Europe in winter.

Yamal could therefore form an important link in China’s efforts to expand its transportation network across the Eurasian continent and Arctic waters to access new markets and natural resources. The peninsula’s Port of Sabetta, from which gas would be exported, “is roughly the same difference from Paris as it is from Beijing,” Kobylkin noted. This shipping link would build on industrial foundations established during the Soviet era. In 1962, the first gas was pumped out of Yamal. Today, the commodity flows to global markets via corridors like the 4,196-kilometer Yamal-Europe gas pipeline, which terminates in Germany.

From the governor’s point of view, Yamal lies not so much the edge of the earth but rather at the center of two major global markets: Europe and Asia. He was also keen to stress that the region’s capital, Salekhard, is the only city to lie directly on the Arctic Circle. Geography therefore seems important, but human efforts ultimately decide a region’s destiny rather than nature (and certainly not fears about climate change). The only thing superseding man is science. Kobylkin, speaking of a new vaccine developed to protect Yamal’s reindeer against anthrax, testified, “This vindicates our belief that science should be going ahead of man.” In the Russian Arctic and beyond, where it appears that technological advances that make offshore drilling possible are being implemented ahead of robust testing and preparations, this belief may represent the real danger.

UN Secretary General addresses Arctic Circle: “There’s no Planet B”


United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the press conference following this speech to the Arctic Circle assembly, with former Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson in the background. Photo: Mia Bennett/Cryopolitics

Yesterday at the Arctic Circle conference in Iceland’s booming capital, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accepted the first-ever Arctic Prize from the country’s former president, Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson, for his leadership in international climate diplomacy.

In a conference where presenters speak in excited volumes about the potential for Arctic development, Ban Ki-moon called the region “a place where see promise and peril in close proximity.” He spent most of his 20-minute speech drawing attention to the threat of climate change. In front of a packed auditorium with attendees from over 40 countries, he expressed, “Arctic melting affects Miami, Mumbai, Shanghai, coastal cities – and so much else. When the Arctic suffers, the world feels the pain.”

The outgoing Secretary General drew on his personal observations of melting glaciers in Iceland, Svalbard, and Greenland and the wealth of scientific research on climate change to convey the urgency and scale of the problem. “The Arctic is melting before our eyes,” he noted. “In a single day last month, the Arctic melted at three times its normal rate. In three days, it lost ice the size of England.”

Apocalyptically, he warned: “There’s no Plan B because there’s no Planet B.”

But overall, Ban Ki-moon was optimistic about the ability for the world’s nations to combat climate change. He stressed the importance of the COP 21 agreement reached in Paris last December, which 197 parties have now signed. “The Paris Agreement is an agreement out of compromise, but it’s the best…and most ambitious way as circumstances allow.” The treaty underscores the world’s commitment to limiting global temperature rise to less than 2°C and binds its signatories to lowering their emissions at nationally determined levels.

Greenland: the elephant in the room


The UN Secretary General addressing the Arctic Circle assembly, with the former president of Iceland in the shadows on the right. Photo: Mia Bennett/Cryopolitics

Yet for all the talk of Greenland’s melting glaciers in the Secretary General’s speech, he failed to mention the fact that the Arctic island is one of the only countries in the world that has not signed onto COP 21. Saudi Arabia, which just reclaimed the title of the world’s largest oil producer, is another rare non-signatory. Even the major oil producing countries of the U.S., Russia, and Nigeria have signed.

Greenland’s professed inability to afford the treaty’s terms exemplifies the Arctic paradox: that even as climate change proceeds and permanently alters traditional ways of life, it also opens up new opportunities for development – many of which Greenland’s government is hoping to realize.

As the country’s foreign minister told The Guardian in January, “The economic situation gives us no choice but to develop mining and oil. We would most likely [seek] a territorial reservation. It would be very costly if we were to submit to a binding agreement.”

Foreign investment from companies based in faraway countries like China and Australia may one day help open up the rich mineral resources on land and oil and gas resources offshore. Extraction of these non-renewable resources, which would inevitably emit a significant amount of greenhouse gases, may allow Greenland to become fully independent from Denmark and do away with the ~$660 million block grant it receives every year.

Ban Ki-moon reminded the audience, “As in developing countries, those who have contributed least to climate change are affected the most.” But going forward, developing countries like Greenland that cannot afford to leave their fossil fuel resources in the ground may one day be contributing more per capita to carbon emissions.

Iceland and the promise of technology

In a way, Greenland represents the opposite of Iceland, an Arctic nation that prides itself on its roaring hydroelectric power stations and geothermal energy generation. 99% of the tiny island’s energy comes from these two sources.

In a press conference following his speech, Ban Ki-moon said, “We ask Iceland to do much more.” Citing the country’s strengths in renewable energy and technologies, he emphasized, “We count on Iceland’s strong engagement for sustainable development.”

Iceland is a country that has alternately been cursed and blessed by its geography over the centuries. Currently, its rugged landscape, considered so unforgiving in previous centuries, has put it at the top of the list for the increasing number of tourists seeking extreme destinations. The steep, glaciated terrain also makes Iceland an ideal place for implementing hydropower technologies. Since 1969, Iceland has constructed numerous dams to provide cheap, low-carbon energy for controversial aluminum smelting facilities.

In essence, the country’s poster child status for sustainable development is due to a fortuitous combination of geography and technology. Unlike Greenland, Iceland, unburdened by a pressing economic need to develop its fossil fuels resources (though it is still quietly exploring them with the help of a Chinese state-owned corporation), has signed onto COP 21.

At the end of the day, technology, rather than a political agreement, may represent humanity’s last best hope to tackling climate change. The Secretary General had said earlier in his speech, “But as far as technology – you don’t know what tomorrow brings.” For Greenland and others parts of the Arctic that are banking their economic futures on the carbon-intensive industries of oil, gas, and mining, a technological rather than political solution to climate change may be the only way out.