Ávarp ráðherra í diplómatísku akademíu rússneska utanríkisráðuneytisins
Miðvikudaginn 27. nóvember
(Vice-) Rector, Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure for me to be with you here at the Russian Diplomatic Academy in the beautiful city of Moscow.
Many of you in the audience are the future of Russian diplomacy and who knows, you might be assigned to work on Iceland or the Arctic. I therefore hope my speech today will give you good insights into Iceland’s Arctic policy.
Today, I will focus on three main topics: First, some of the main challenges we are facing in the Arctic; Second, our Arctic Council chairmanship, and lastly, on the importance of sustainable development.
Your Foreign Minister and I had a good meeting yesterday and while we may not agree on everything, we have much more that unites us than divides us. This is not least because as Arctic states our interests are intertwined and indivisible and we have much to gain by working closely together. That is why Mr. Lavrov and I signed a Joint Statement on ensuring the continuity of the ongoing work in the Arctic Council when Russia takes over the Chairmanship in the Arctic Council from Iceland in 2021. It sends a very important signal to the Council’s Working Groups that we support the constructive work taking place there until and beyond 2021.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Important developments are taking place in the Arctic region. Unprecedented climate and environmental changes. You may have seen in the news recently that one of our glaciers, Ok, has now disappeared completely. The effects of climate change are real in Iceland. And we see more interest in Arctic affairs than ever before. This increased interest mirrors a substantial change in international priorities from what they were 15 years ago, when Iceland last held the chairmanship of the Arctic Council.
And these changes are already having effects way beyond the region. Rising sea levels, changing weather patterns, mirrored for instance in changes to monsoons in Asia and opening of new sea routes that will affect far away economies.
The changes we face are also reflected in increased risk of pollution and environmental disasters in the Arctic. This calls for closer cooperation on civilian preparedness and response as well as on search and rescue. Arctic Council agreements and recent exercises are a step in the right direction.
Moreover, some changes bring us both opportunities and challenges. Increased access to natural resources, increased marine tourism, changes in migratory patterns of fish stocks and changes in biodiversity. All these issues are such in nature that they will require increased, good and constructive cooperation between Arctic partners and with actors outside the Arctic region.
We all agree that prosperity and wellbeing of all Arctic inhabitants are best secured by ensuring peace, stability and constructive cooperation in the Arctic.
Successive Icelandic governments have consistently spoken up against militarization of the Arctic beyond the levels seen following the end of the Cold War. This is also manifested in our Arctic Policy, which was adopted unanimously by Althingi, our Parliament, in 2011.
At the same time, we accept Russia’s right to safeguard legitimate security interests in the region. But I have not shied away from questioning the scope, speed and ambition of Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic. Russia should not misunderstand our concerns. Russia is a leading Arctic nation with unrivalled access to the region and a key partner for us in the Arctic.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Since May this year, Iceland holds the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. As you may know it is a two-year chairmanship and we will pass on the gavel to Russia in 2021.
The heading of our chairmanship programme is Together Towards a Sustainable Arctic and our four priority areas are as follows:
- First; the Arctic marine environment.
- Second; climate and green energy solutions.
- Third, prosperous and sustainable Arctic communities.
- And fourth; continuing the work for a stronger Arctic Council.
The oceans are essential for global sustainable development. They cover the largest part of the Arctic region and given the geographic location of Iceland; it is only natural that we intend to put focus on the ocean during our chairmanship.
Furthermore, the wellbeing of much of the Arctic population is based on the sustainable harvest of marine resources. We want to improve the utilization of marine resources through new projects focused on innovation and efficiency. When successfully applied, the so-called Blue Bio-Economy project provides positive outcomes for the environment, strengthens the economy and benefits the communities.
But there is little use in focusing on the utilization of the catch if we don’t safeguard our oceans. Ocean pollution and acidification are of grave concern. The Arctic Council’s subsidiary bodies have carried out very important research in this field and we want further development of these projects.
It is clear, that we must take action, but we must base our actions on the best available scientific knowledge. Therefore, the Icelandic government will host an International Symposium on plastics in the Arctic in April 2020 and we will also co-host the third Arctic Science Ministerial meeting with Japan in Tokyo in November next year.
Iceland also wants to maintain the Council’s emphasis on meteorological cooperation and enhance projects on the mapping of reductions of glaciers, a very visible barometer of climate change.
As I will get to later, when it comes to both green energy solutions and the so-called Blue Bio-Economy, I think many Arctic communities can benefit from Iceland’s experience. As an example on the energy side, there are large areas in Russia where geothermal energy is sufficient to be utilised for the heating of housing. Harnessing this energy source would open new opportunities for the communities concerned and reduce pollution. Other green energy solutions can be found in the high north, including wind and hydropower.
We believe there is real potential for building sustainable business opportunities in the Arctic that could truly benefit the 4 million people there and the region’s future generations. We believe there is real potential in this regard through strengthened ties between the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council. And we have emphasized this during our chairmanship. Just last month, the two Councils held their first joint meeting in Reykjavík.
We have worked very closely with Finland, the previous chair, and will continue to work very closely with Russia the incoming chair, throughout our chairmanship. We believe ensuring continuity in the work of the Council is very important. and I am very happy to say that our two countries agree on the importance of the ongoing work to strengthen the inner workings of the Council; improving engagement with the Permanent Participants and developing the cooperation with the Arctic Council Observer states and organizations.
Ladies and gentlemen,
If you were to sum up Iceland’s Chairmanship Program you could do so in two words: Sustainable Development.
Iceland was for centuries one of the poorest countries in Europe. Our geographical isolation, harsh climate and frequent natural disasters made Iceland a very difficult and precarious place to live in for our ancestors.
However, we have been blessed with natural resources, the sustainable use of which helped us develop into one of the most affluent states in the world, and that in only one century.
What natural resources? You may ask; we neither struck gold nor do we have any oil fields in Iceland. But underneath our feet, we have geothermal energy, and surrounding our island are some of the best fishing grounds in the Atlantic.
Just like Russia, Iceland can be a cold but most of all a very windy place. Even in summer, you feel lucky whenever the temperature is above 12 degrees! Some say that an open fridge and the Icelandic summer have two things in common: It is 8 degrees and the light is always on.
Therefore, heating is a fundamental issue for us. In the beginning of the 20th Century, some brave Icelanders took the decision to start heating the houses of Reykjavík using geothermal district heating. I say brave because that decision was a difficult and costly one for a poor country that had just regained its sovereignty after 650 years, with only one newly established university in the country.
Since geothermal energy was also harnessed in Iceland during the Viking times it might be tempting for me boast a little and state that harnessing our national resources was in our DNA. Unfortunately, that is not our story - We had to learn the hard way.
After having fought the British – yes, we fought the British: Three times in the 50s and 70s and won them on every occasion – so after we had successfully fought the British and others in bitter disputes to gain full control of our Exclusive Economic Zone by the mid-70s, we continued overfishing most of our stocks for years. Thankfully, we realized just in time that something had to be done to prevent a permanent depletion of our stocks.
Waking up to this cold reality turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It meant that drastic measures could be taken and almost all unrestricted fisheries were stopped. This lead the introduction of our present fisheries management system which is science-based and ensures responsible and sustainable fisheries.
Turning away from coals to geothermal energy and from Olympic fisheries to responsible resource management were, in my view, two of Iceland’s most important policy decisions in the last century. These “green” decisions paved the way for a modern and prosperous society. They were not only the right ones, but they were the only ones that could bring our country to the next level.
This could result in entire new industries in Iceland. Good example of this are some of the Icelandic companies that have accompanied me on this trip and are now doing business in Russia. They are designing new and more efficient ships, fishing gear, processing and freezing instruments, to name a few. All of this supports a more innovation and sustainable development in the fishing industry. Which brings me to the Blue Bio-Economy.
In Iceland the development has been that we catch less fish but by cutting waste and finding innovative solutions that maximize utilization levels, we have managed to increase substantially the value of catches.
We are still learning, but I can tell you that the Blue Bio-Economy concept has had truly positive effects in Iceland. There are even Icelandic companies that have manged to reach up to 100% utilisation of their catches, leaving no waste. That is dramatic improvement from the world vide average of 50%. Only a few years ago, this idea would have been thought of as revolutionary. Today, it is simply considered smart.
I could name as an example innovators and researchers in a small fishing town in the north of Iceland that make a product out of shrimp shells that fights inflammations in the body. This product is sold overseas and has enabled highly educated people to return and find jobs in their old hometown. The by-product made from the shell previously thrown away is now becoming more valuable than the shrimp.
Other entrepreneurs are producing collagen from fish, which is a food supplement that is supposed to keep you young. As you can see I take it every day! Yet another company in the remote fishing village of Ísafjörður has developed methods to extract enzymes from fish skin that is revolutionizing how burn victims are treated. Its products are sold all over the world.
It seems that the possibilities for products made by better utilizing our catches are endless!
I can safely say that investing in innovation, research and development and basing decisions on sound scientific research has really paid off for Iceland. True, there are no easy shortcuts and mistakes are bound to happen. But it is only through trial and error that we grow and reach our true potential.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is high time for closer cooperation in the Arctic. Only by working together can we, as our Chairmanship Program states, move Together Towards a Sustainable Arctic.
For this, we need to respond to climate change, to ocean pollution and acidification. We must increase our research and strengthen scientific initiatives. We must ensure peace and stability in our region and avoid a race for resources. But we must also ensure a prosperous future for the people of the Arctic.
This is a tall order. For all of us. Let us not forget that the Arctic offers a golden opportunity to demonstrate how responsible states interact with each other, by respecting international laws and principles, and work to achieve common goals, in the interest of our people and our common future.