United Nations Environment Programme
environment for development Search 
News Centre
 Home News Centre
 Media Contacts
 Press Releases
 In Focus
 RSS / Podcasts

 Printable Version

Speech by Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, at the UNESCO's International Experts Meeting

Meeting on the Sustainable Development of the Arctic in the Face of Global Climate Change: Scientific, Social, Cultural and Educational Challenges

Monaco, 3 March 2009 - His Serene Highness, Prince Albert of Monaco,

Koichiro Matsura, Director General of UNESCO,

Larissa Abrutina, Vice President of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON)

Lars-Anders Baer, President of the Board of the Swedish Saami Parliament

Aqaaluk Lynge, Vice-President of the of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, from Greenland

Jonathan Motzfeld, Former Prime Minister of Greenland

Klemetti Naäkkäläjärvi, President Finnish Saami Parliament

Bob Correll, former chair of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, now Director of the Heinz Centre

Jean Malaurie, UNESCO goodwill ambassador for Arctic Polar Issues.

Colleagues from UNESCO and UNEP,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be in the Principality of Monaco around one year after His Serene Highness and the government so ably hosted the world's gathering of environment ministers at the 10th special session of UNEP's Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

Here important decisions affecting UNEP's work were taken, not least one on the Sustainable Development of the Arctic region.

One year on, who could have foreseen the dramatic events that would unfold across the globe from the food and fuel crisis to the financial and now full-scale economic crisis.

However, another crisis also unfolded - and this was in the Arctic.

The science emerging since Monaco is quite simply re-writing and almost daily many of the forecasts, assumptions and predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It is underlining a new level of urgency to act that perhaps is still not at the fever pitch-level among leaders and climate negotiators that it deserves.

Indeed it is breath-taking to me, and I am sure to others, that the response by some to the melting away of the Arctic is not to pause and to reflect.

But to scramble, lemming-like to drill for more oil in the expanding ice-free waters.

To put more petrol on the fire that is driving the rise in emissions and threatening not only the cultures, livelihoods and very lives of Arctic communities and people, but indeed the entire world.

UNEP has captured some of the new and sobering science - a great deal of which is coming forward as a result of the International Polar Year of which we are proud to part-  in its Year Book 2009, launched only a few weeks ago at our recent Governing Council in Nairobi.

  • For the second year in a row, there was an ice-free channel in the Northwest Passage through the islands of northern Canada in 2008.
  • 2008 also witnessed the opening of the Northern Sea Route along the Arctic Siberian coast - the two passages have probably not been open simultaneously since before the last ice age some 100,000 years ago.
  • The Greenland ice sheet, which could raise sea levels by six metres if it melted away, is currently losing more than 100 cubic km a year - faster than can be explained by natural melting.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that sea levels might rise by between 18cm and 59cm in the coming century.

But many researchers now believe the rise may be even higher in part as a result of new assessments of ice sheets in Greenland and also in Antarctica.

  • One study estimates a sea level rise of between 0.8 and 1.5 metres, while another suggests a sea level rise of two metres in the coming century from outflows of ice from Greenland alone.

  • A one metre rise in sea levels world-wide would displace around 100 million people in Asia, mostly Bangladesh, eastern China and Vietnam; 14 million in Europe and eight million each in Africa and South America.

The Year Book also flags up increasing concern about releases of greenhouse gases such as methane from the Arctic in part as a result of new studies indicating that the western Arctic is warming 3.5 times more than the rest of the globe.

This concern has taken on even greater importance as a result of two recently published studies.

  • One focusing on North America suggests that upwards of 60 per cent more carbon could be stored in the permafrost than previously supposed.

  • Another has now doubled the amount of soil-carbon in the permafrost across the entire Arctic

  • Marine researchers have discovered more than 250 plumes of methane bubbling up along the edge of the Continental shelf northwest of Svalbard.

  • The International Siberian Shelf Study has found higher concentrations of methane offshore from the Lena River delta.

  • Researchers calculate that, once underway, thawing of the east Siberian permafrost - thought to contain 500 billion tones of carbon - would be irreversible and that over a century 250 billion tones could be released.


Monitoring of methane levels in the atmosphere indicate that concentrations rose in 2007 and 2008 after nearly a decade of stability. Intriguingly higher concentrations were detected in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Since Monaco UNEP has been working to strengthen existing efforts and forge new directions in support of this sensitive and vulnerable region which, along with the Small Island Developing States is perhaps in the very front of the front-line on climate change.

The work is being spearheaded by our polar centre at GRID-Arendal in collaboration with UNEP's various divisions and a wide range of partners.

Report on Arctic biodiversity and relevance to Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) in the Arctic

We are currently undertaking an examination of MEAs and how they are (or are not) applicable to the Arctic region.

The link to biodiversity, and thus the health and well-being of Arctic peoples and cultures, is the focus of this work.

This work builds on recommendations from the Arendal Seminar in 2006 attended by Arctic stakeholders and relevant MEA secretariats.

The seminar examined opportunities for improving the effectiveness of MEAs for addressing issues of Arctic sustainable development and conservation.

The project will produce an analytical report, a publication for decision-makers and the general public on biodiversity and the MEAs and other materials.

Many Strong Voices

GRID-Arendal is coordinating the Many Strong Voices Programme, launched at the UN climate convention meeting in Montreal in 2006.

This is an alliance between the Arctic and Small Island Developing States many of whose economies rely heavily on healthy natural resources and have cultures inextricably linked with their natural environment.

The initiative is building a network for adaptation knowledge and exchange between north and south and facilitates collaboration between peoples and organizations on climate change mitigation and adaptation at the local, national, regional and international levels.

I believe the lessons being learnt via this unique collaboration can generate lessons and coping strategies for others who are currently not in the front-line, but one day soon may be including Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean and parts of North America and Southern European.

A great deal of the programme is about education, communications and outreach alongside research and assessments.

I would be keen to discuss with UNESCO how together we can accelerate the initiative. Indeed I understand there have already been some discussions between UNESCO and UNEP staff, which I welcome.

Arctic Biodiversity and Monitoring

GRID-Arendal and UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, UK are the Arctic Council steering committee for biodiversity monitoring and assessment programmes.

They are working through the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group to produce a 2010 Highlights Report on Arctic Biodiversity Trends.

This work links to the Monaco governing council decision which calls on UNEP to strengthen collaboration with the Arctic Council.

The purpose of the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment (ABA) is to synthesize and assess the status and trends of biodiversity in the Arctic. 

It will provide a much needed description of the current state of the Arctic's ecosystems and biodiversity.

It will also create a baseline for use in global and regional assessments of Arctic biodiversity and provide a basis to inform and guide future Arctic Council work.

The Arctic 2010 Highlights Report will present twenty-two indicators of trends in Arctic biodiversity based on the suite of indicators developed by CAFF's Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Programme. 

The report will be the Arctic Council's contribution to the United Nations 2010 Biodiversity Target and the International Biodiversity Year in 2010. 

EU Partnership

GRID-Arendal is leading part of a multi-partner project under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme entitled Interactions between World Regions and their Implications.

The project is called Arctic Ocean Geopolitics: Coordinating Environmental Security.

It brings together partners from many countries and backgrounds. The primary goal is to "enhance cooperation among research teams in Europe, including Russia, and around the world regarding Arctic Ocean geopolitics."

The project starts from the premise that the Arctic has entered a period of profound transition of the sort that scientists call a state-change. Again, this work is very much in keeping with your workshop themes here.

Other Arctic and Cultural Links

I will briefly mention other work that also fits well with the cultural mandate of UNESCO:

ECORA – A project that takes an integrated ecosystem approach to conserving biodiversity and minimizing habitat fragmentation in three selected Model Areas in the Russian Arctic. 

ECORA is a Global Environment Facility (GEF) project initiated by UNEP/GRID-Arendal, the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), and the Russian Federation.  The objective of this multi-year project is the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the Russian Arctic through development of integrated ecosystem management (IEM) strategies and action plans.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the Circumpolar North – Our teams are also finalising a report on Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the Circumpolar North as part of a project sponsored by StatoilHydro.

The report assesses the use of TEK in environmental assessment, resource management and science in the Arctic. It includes a discussion on the need to protect and preserve indigenous cultures in order to protect and preserve TEK - an important consideration given the increasing urbanization trends across the globe including in northerly latitudes.

UNEP Indigenous Peoples Strategy – GRID-Arendal assisted in drafting the text and helped facilitate the participation of Indigenous Peoples and their communities in environmental processes by developing a UNEP Indigenous Peoples Strategy.

Given all of this work and these connections, and given UNESCO's expertise in education, science and cultural matters, I believe there is ample room for us to develop our Arctic work together.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Climate Change and the Green Economy/Global Green New deal

We meet with some 300 days left to the crucial UN climate meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark where the fate of the Arctic and the world may well be agreed.

There are optimistic signs that a deep, decisive and transformational deal can be sealed.

The decision by President Obama to demonstrate leadership and to re-engage the United States in the international effort to combat climate change is one.

The climate strategies of several key countries in the developing world, such as India, China, Mexico and South Africa, which are just unfolding may also build confidence and unlock potential stalemates.

UNEP's overarching response to the current crises and the ones fast emerging on the radar has been the launching of the Green Economy initiative and the Global Green New Deal.

The climate change challenge is central to this work.

The philosophy underpinning these action-orientated initiatives are that in a world of scarce financial resources, every dollar, Euro, Ruble and Yuan need to work harder and on multiple fronts.

And that environmental investments have a big bang for your Buck, Baht or British Pound.

The response has been encouraging - over $100 billion of President Obama's stimulus package is to be spent on areas such as 'weatherizing' one million homes, renewables and smart electricity Grids.

Projects that generate economic activity, new kinds of green jobs and cuts in greenhouse gas emissions - that is a Global Green New Deal which can set the stage for a Green 21st century Economy.

Others pursuing similar paths to a greater or lesser extent include the Republic of Korea; Japan; China; the UK; Germany and France.

At the recent Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum, we underlined in a report by economists and in consultation with over 20 UN organizations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the OECD, that a Global Green New Deal is as much a developing economy agenda as much as a developed one.

I am pleased that many ministers from developing economies also left with the resolution to join this new Green wave.

UNEP stands ready with expertise and advice to support countries including Arctic nations to make this transition to a more resource efficient, low carbon economy.

The next key focus will be the G20 in London.

The Global Green New Deal Report proposes that one per cent of global GDP - around one third of the current $2.5 trillion-worth of stimulus packages-be invested in the environment, including ecosystem infrastructure such as freshwaters and forests.

The Republic of Korea for example is investing three per cent of its GDP.

And there are other example of how investing in the environment can give significant returns, not least for the Arctic.

Ministers also agreed in Nairobi to begin negotiations on a legally binding treaty to crackdown on the toxic heavy metal mercury and its compounds.

Mercury pollution is serious challenge to Arctic communities where contamination of fish and marine resources represents a major health threat to people - especially indigenous ones.

Coal-fired power stations are a major source, with a great deal of the pollution ending up at the poles.

Meanwhile mercury, trapped in the Arctic ice is re-emerging back into the food chain as a result of climate change.

Thus reducing every dollar spent on reducing emissions from coal-fired power stations can cut not only greenhouse gases but mercury pollution - both new emissions and the re-emergence of old ones - a classic example of the Green Economy approach.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A deal, or at least a real deal in Copenhagen is far from agreed - there are many hurdles between now and December which need to be navigated.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is working tirelessly to try and find a path to a successful conclusion as is UNEP, UNESCO and the entire UN system.

The City of Copenhagen and the Government of Denmark will, I am sure, host an excellent meeting.

But perhaps one of the next UN climate meetings could move even further north - perhaps set amongst the Saami and their reindeer herds facing food shortages as a result of climate change.

Or perhaps among the communities of Siberia where buildings and infrastructure are already slumping and buckling as a result of melting permafrost.

Or in the small cemetery in Iqaluit, Canada, on the shores of Frobisher Bay where the tragedy of more extreme weather events,which have seen snowmobiles plunging through thin ice and ships overturned in unusually gusty winds, are being grimly chronicled on the headstones.


 The Arctic is the canary in the climate coal mine - its singing is reaching deafening and alarming intensity that can no longer be ignored and needs to be heard by all in Copenhagen.

The science, and the direct experiences of Arctic peoples, indicates that those long debated 'tipping points' may be coming faster than had previously been presumed only one year ago.

Copenhagen needs to be a 'political tipping point' of equal magnitude - one that matches the challenges and squares up to the realities now being  felt by millions across the globe, not least in the day to day lives of the Arctic people.

Thank you




Further Resources

UNEP Climate Change Website

International Expert's Meeting

UNESCO Homepage


Follow Us

Keep up to date with UNEP events on Facebook, Twitter and You Tube.

Twitter Facebook You Tube

UNEP on Facebook