Arctic Frontiers: Shaking Hands with the Premier of Québec

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

An event hosted by WPI outlined Plan Nord and was led by the Premier of Québec, Philippe Couillard (center, under the presentation screen). Credit: Katherine Peinhardt

By Katherine A. Peinhardt, C+S ’15

Arctic governance is quickly emerging as the geopolitical question of the century. With climate change increasing the potential for new shipping routes, as well as interest growing in the areas of mining and extractive processes, players like the Russian Federation, Canada and Norway, among others, are aiming to develop their northernmost territories.

As examined in my International Environmental Law course at Columbia, the management of the Arctic is distinctive in that it is not managed like a commons, unlike the Antarctic territory. Its governance is similar, as of late, to that of territorial waters of a sea-bordered state. The states that share in this territory, therefore, are the executors of environmental policy in the region, and this has left much of the land management process for the Arctic to the influence of piecemeal, limited national “soft laws.”

There is still a lack of potent international legal frameworks for the control of the region; only soft law measures like the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy and the Declaration on the Protection of the Arctic Environment, which have set vague environmental protection aims for Arctic nations. The creation of the Arctic Council and its six working groups in 1996 provided a forum for discussion of such issues of environmental, economic and development concerns. However, it remains to be seen if any significant protective legislation will be executed through these frameworks, information-sharing initiatives and policy recommendations (including maritime protections and data exchange regarding species protection) gleaned from the aforementioned international accords.

Many non-Arctic countries and companies are courting Arctic Circle states and questions of environmental integrity and economic development have arisen for government figures like Philippe Couillard, the Premier of Québec, as a result.

Last week, the World Policy Institute hosted an event as a part of its Arctic in Context series, with the aim of stimulating political conversation in that area. At the event, Premiere Couillard gave a speech on Plan Nord, a development plan for areas north of the 49th parallel that covers industries as diverse as mining, energy, forestry and tourism. The presentation, for which I staffed a question and answer session, was attended by various New York-based banking industry figures, members of Québec government, media figures from groups like News Deeply and personnel from different environmental law centers.

From left to right, Joe Cari, a WPI board member, Premier Couillard, and Sherle Schwenninger, WPI Senior Fellow. Credit: WPI

The plan considers First Nation populations, who have become economically involved in the region, and works towards an economic development-focused framework of sustainable development principles. Sustainable development, itself, is a concept that varies in definition depending on the lens of the definer; in this case, a regime focused on job creation. The more widely accepted Brundtland Commission definition focuses more on the maintenance of the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Drawing on my knowledge of Arctic Circle politics from my International Environmental Law course at Columbia, my perception of Premiere Couillard’s presentation, which touched on prospects for hydroelectricity, as well as considerations for indigenous rights and land use planning for cobalt, graphite and other rare earth mineral extractive purposes, enabled foresight of the engagement of diverse stakeholders in the northernmost reaches of the Québec territory. Other Arctic Council states had intense deliberations and input into the plan, and it is likely that such discussions will continue during its implementation in concert with non-Arctic economic interests emerging on the global market. Perhaps this increased interaction will bring about more comprehensive Arctic Council legislation and more potent policy action in terms of territorial management of the region.

In the end, this furthering of development in more northern areas is a manifestation of many subject areas of my course of study with Climate and Society; courses like Climate Change Law and International Environmental Law prepared me with a policy lens through which to view such developments as Plan Nord, and I will certainly be following its yet-unclear environmental outcomes as it is implemented in the coming years; “toward 2035,” as noted on its corresponding colorful, optimistic, glacier-depicting brochure.

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