While most regions of the Arctic are far removed from large industrialized areas, the environment in the high North carries the traces of human-induced pollution – from soot to plastics, from methane to pesticides. To an extent, pollutants originate in the Arctic for example through wood combustion or oil and gas flaring. Yet, many contaminants are transported over long distances, traveling to the high latitudes via rivers, oceans, and the air – where they can have far reaching negative impacts on the environment and human health.
Several of the Arctic Council’s Working Groups are closely monitoring and addressing the impacts of pollutants and contaminants on the Arctic ecosystems. Their findings have raised awareness on the serious implications of pollution in the Arctic and contributed to both national actions and international conventions.
Back in sight, back in mind
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are chemicals of global concern because they can potentially be transported over long distances, remain in the environment, accumulate in ecosystems, and have significant negative effects on human health and the environment. Humans are exposed to these chemicals in a variety of ways, mainly through contaminated food and polluted air. Many everyday products can contain POPs, such as flame retardants or detergents. As a result, POPs can be found virtually everywhere on the planet in measurable concentrations.
Since its establishment in 1991, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) has documented the extent and effects of pollution in the Arctic and tracked new developments in order to inform policy decisions. Its assessments have contributed significantly to the negotiation of international agreements, such as the ‘UN ECE’s Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) Protocol on Persistent Organic Pollutants’ and the ‘Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants’.
The Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP) assesses the emissions of POPs in local factories, develops inventories of emission sources, and promotes the decrease of pollution with local authorities, businesses, trade organizations and environmental stakeholders.
The short-lived climate pollutants black carbon and methane are contributing to atmospheric warming. In addition, black carbon that falls on snow and ice accelerates the melting of these reflective surfaces and consequently global warming. Black carbon and methane emissions also contribute directly to air pollution that harms human health.
Due to their proximity to the Arctic, Arctic States are uniquely positioned to slow Arctic warming caused by emissions of black carbon: despite generating just ten percent of global black carbon emissions, Arctic States are responsible for 30 percent of black carbon’s warming effects in the Arctic.
AMAP has monitored black carbon and methane emissions and reported on their effects as Arctic climate forcers. Based on AMAP’s findings, ACAP has developed pilot projects that build capacity and demonstrate emission reduction activities. These projects are aimed at encouraging national actions to reduce emissions and releases of these pollutants.
The Council’s Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane in turn has been tasked by the Arctic States to develop a biennial “Summary of Progress and Recommendations” based on the national reports and other relevant information. These reports contain recommendations for an aspirational collective goal on black carbon.
Over the past years, marine litter has emerged as one of the most pervasive problems affecting the marine environment globally. The Arctic is no exception. The Icelandic Chairmanship (2019-2021) has thus placed plastic pollution in the Arctic marine environment high on its agenda and is drawing on the findings of the first Desktop study on marine litter in the Arctic, which was developed by the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group. PAME is currently developing a Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in the Arctic in close collaboration with other Arctic Council working groups.
The environmentally sound destruction of hazardous waste and best waste management practices for small and remote Arctic communities are continuous efforts of the Council’s Working Groups. Currently, ACAP and the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) are cooperating on scaling up solid waste management activities by working closely with local communities, developing capacity building planning tools and a template for a community standards model.