Irish Times view on environmental diplomacy

Ireland’s application for observer status in the Arctic Council reflects an extension of foreign policy and a direct interest in the melting Arctic ice

Ireland may not be an Arctic nation but, as Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney puts it "we are an island nation at the edge of Europe in the North Atlantic and we have a culture, heritage and identity intrinsically linked to the seas that surround us". We are "part of the wider Arctic neighbourhood".

Our application for observer status in the Arctic Council reflects both a direct interest in the melting Arctic ice and an extension of the multilateralism at the heart of our foreign policy, a form of environmental diplomacy.

The Arctic, the melting ice of which threatens low-lying coastal states the world over, is also an arena in which Canada, northern European states, Russia, the US and now China compete for regional influence, over new shipping routes across the top of the world and for hydrocarbons.

The council, set up in 1996, is an eight-member intergovernmental forum composed of the states touching on the Arctic and involving representatives of indigenous communities and 13 observer states and organisations. It exists to facilitate science-based cooperation on issues including environmental protection and marine sustainability, most particularly climate change.


The challenges are huge. Every year the Arctic ice-cap loses an area the size of Austria. And since 1979, the volume of the Arctic ice has shrunk by 75 per cent. Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic has no international treaty setting ground rules for its exploitation. The council has no role in military or security matters, or economic, and no enforcement powers, operating by consensus. That is not easy and the US blocked a recent declaration because it put too much emphasis on climate change.

But the council’s international scientific working groups, to which Ireland hopes to contribute, are doing important on-the-ground studies on issues like the extent of ocean acidification, environmental pollution by microplastics, and emissions from biomass fires. As the coronavirus crisis makes all too clear, in the face of international disasters, our only hope lies in extending such important international scientific co-operation.