EU injects Green Deal objectives into Arctic research strategy

14 Oct 2021 | News

Experts say research is an important diplomatic tool in the region amid growing tensions with Russia and China

The European Commission has set out a new strategy for securing its geopolitical standing in the Arctic region, placing the focus on the EU’s Green Deal.

The strategy calls for restrictions on fossil fuel exploration and extraction in the Arctic and pledges EU funds to speed up the green transition in the region.

Through joint projects, the EU hopes to influence Russia and others that are poised to exploit resources in the region. “Research is a diplomatic tool. This emphasis, I’ve not seen it before,” said Andreas Raspotnik, senior research fellow at Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen Institute, and senior fellow at the Arctic Institute in the US, commenting on the strategy.

Since the last version of the Commission’s Arctic communication in 2016, the situation in the region has shifted. Russia is using Arctic shipping routes during the summer when ice levels are low, drilling for natural resources and increasing its military presence.

At the same time, China has increased the number of military submarines in the region and wants to integrate the northern sea route into its global trade plans. Despite multiple EU countries with territories in the region, the EU has little influence there. The new communication aims to rebalance the situation.

“A shift in the perception of the Arctic is urgently needed as an increasingly tense international situation forces us to review our Arctic policy,” Anna Fotyga, author of a European Parliament report on the Arctic, said last week.

The latest iteration of the policy largely builds on past experiences, with some stronger lines on the EU’s presence and the green transition. “There are much stronger statements there. We want to have the oil to stay in the ground. This is a strong statement,” said Nicole Biebow, head of the international cooperation unit at the Alfred-Wegener-Institut for Arctic and Antarctic research.

Raspotnik says the new strategy will not be a game changer but it’s a good overview of the EU’s policy in the region. “There are a lot of different issues that come into play, you cannot catch them all in one paper,” he said. “But the EU being involved in the Arctic is a geopolitical necessity.”

Green research

The strategy sets a clear direction towards a greener Arctic. “It’s very much focused on everything Green Deal related,” Raspotnik told Science|Business. “[It is] confident, based on the idea that the Green Deal will change the EU’s economy and the relationship with its neighbours.”

Climate change in the region has a knock-on effect on the rest of the world, which makes action on climate a top priority.

The last EU research programme, Horizon 2020, invested around €200 million in Arctic-related research, and the new Horizon Europe programme is set to build on this.  

Biebow said the new strategy lays out more actions than in 2016. “They are much more specific in comparison, when it comes to stressing how important permafrost investigations and carbon emissions are. You can see the Green Deal there,” she told Science|Business.

The strategy also aims to build on the Horizon 2020 project EU-PolarNet 2, which takes an overview of European Polar Research Area. Biebow, who coordinates the project, said the consortium’s work in setting out priorities for Arctic research is well-represented in the new communication.

Raspotnik stresses research in the Arctic is already a highly collaborative in nature, helping drive the EU’s geopolitical agenda in the region. “It doesn’t matter if you are from the US or Russia, there’s a lot of exchange and cooperation. People always say research is the enhancer of diplomacy in a way. For the EU, that was always one of the entry points, the reason we can be involved in the Arctic,” he said.

It’s too early to tell if the new communication will change much on the ground for scientists. “It will influence our work. We need to digest it a bit and see what it means for research,” said Biebow.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up