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Norway’s Priorities for its Arctic Council Chairship 2023–2025

Mr Bipandeep Sharma is a Research Analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 01, 2023

    On 28 March 2023, the Government of Norway released an important document outlining key priorities for its upcoming Chairship of the Arctic Council.1 Without giving any reference to Russia or to the geopolitical challenges in the context of the Ukraine crisis, the document focuses on addressing the scientific, environmental, economic and human-centric challenges in the region. Four key priority areas have been flagged in the document.

    First, Oceans have been listed as the first focus area of Norway’s priorities in the Arctic. Increased human activity, rapid climate change and drastic loss of sea ice are causing severe stress on the Arctic and other ocean ecosystems. Under its Chairship, Norway intends to develop credible ocean management tools such as a digital environmental atlas for Arctic seas and oceans. It also calls for protecting endangered species and ecosystems in the region through area-based conservation measures. An emphasis is also laid on installing scientific observation systems in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) for collecting scientific data and enabling knowledge sharing among partners. Combating marine litter and strengthening cooperation on emergency preparedness and safe shipping in the Arctic have been further listed as priority objectives of Norway’s Chairship.2

    Second, the issue of climate change and environment is another important priority area highlighted in this document. Emphasis on using local traditional knowledge to address climate issues in the region has been advocated. Knowledge sharing and enhancement of scientific research in this regard have been prioritised. Specific reference to address the emerging issues from Black Carbon and Methane has been emphasised. The need to take a multilateral approach to address climate change and environmental issues in the Arctic has been emphasised.3

    The third section of the document prioritises Norway’s approach in terms of sustainable economic development of the region. It stresses that green transitional projects, blue economy, sustainable shipping and Arctic food systems will be prioritised. Cooperation with indigenous organisations to use their traditional knowledge to enhance their economic development has been emphasised. Developing and protecting the culture and way of life of indigenous people in the region has been set as a key objective of Norway’s Chairship. Lastly, this section of the document calls for sharing the best technological solutions for developing Arctic Industries.4

    The final section takes a people-centric approach and argues that global climate change is altering livelihoods, settlement patterns and living conditions of people in the North. The document calls for developing resilient, diverse and inclusive Arctic communities. Special emphasis is laid on enhancing the role of youth in the Arctic Council’s work and promoting gender equality in the region. It is interesting to note that the word ‘Chairship’ is used instead of ‘Chairmanship’ throughout the document.

    Norway also calls for investigating the role of climate change and its impact on regional public health. The need to establish a diverse network of Arctic human biobanks for providing digital health solutions to people in the Arctic is stressed. Lastly, the document calls for prioritising and developing medical preparedness and response systems for all types of emergencies in Arctic communities through projects that could include the use of local and traditional knowledge.5    


    A continuous emphasis on ‘cooperation’ by avoiding any use of the language of ‘security’ makes this document timely and fully in line with the fundamental principles of the 1996 Ottawa Declaration. A key stress on achieving long-term development goals through support to ongoing activities and projects in the six working and expert groups of the council further leaves space for some level of trust to re-emerge in the council.

    While the document presents an optimistic vision for Norway’s upcoming Chairship, given the ongoing geopolitical contestation in the region, it remains to be seen if Norway can realistically achieve these objectives.

    First, Norway’s call for cooperation while remaining actively engaged with its allies and partners on geopolitical matters in the Arctic may to an extent outline the country’s balanced approach. Such an approach to ensure cooperation, though, seems not achievable  unless engagement with Russia is re-established. Russia’s senior Arctic official Nikolay Korchunov argues that Russia still considers the Arctic Council an important forum for cooperation in the region.6

    Second, Russia accounts for 53 per cent of the Arctic Ocean coastline that extends from the Barents Sea to the Kara Sea to the Laptev Sea, and to the East Siberian Sea. The total continental shelf extent of Russia in the Arctic Ocean is therefore greater than all the other seven Arctic states. Russia’s three major rivers—the Yenisey, the Lena and the Kolyma—end into Kara Sea, Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea respectively in the Arctic.7   Therefore, the overall success of Norway’s first priority area in the Arctic is largely dependent on the country’s engagement with Russia in this regard.

    Third, Norway in its priority document has called for installing scientific observation systems in the CAO for collecting scientific data and sharing it with its allied partners. The Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf (CLCS) approval of Russia’s extended continental shelves in the CAO8 in February 2023 is bound to increase Russia’s maritime activity in the region in near future. Installation of such observation systems (the data from those which could have dual-use implications) may not be easy in areas approved by CLCS in favour of Russia. In the absence of any formal mechanism of cooperation, such installations might be seen with suspicion, especially in areas viewed as essential to Russia's geo-economic and geostrategic interests.

    Fourth, with regard to the issue of enhancing and ensuring safe shipping, search and rescue, emergency preparedness, and disaster risk reduction in the Arctic, the majority of the long-route shipping traffic passes through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) that runs along the Russian coast. Russia maintains substantial infrastructure as compared to other Arctic states to respond to any shipping-related emergency along the NSR. Therefore, this vision seems farfetched without engaging with Russia within or even outside the Arctic Council.

    Fifth, the global scientific communities are of the view that science and climate change issues of the Arctic could not be addressed through limited or selective scientific cooperation.9 Scientists need data, knowledge and experience sharing to validate their research. Norway’s emphasis on prioritising the critical issues of Black Carbon, Methane and other related science and climate change issues would need a global approach of cooperation.

    Sixth, sustainable economic development and green transition in the Arctic region as a whole could be achieved through cooperation with all Arctic stakeholders, sharing of technology, and collaborations in scientific and social science research. The complete Western withdrawal from joint economic projects with Russia and further imposition of economic sanctions and hindrances in technology transfers has negatively impacted green and sustainable economic development in the Arctic.

    Finally, Norway in its document has given great emphasis on prioritising various issues of the indigenous people of the North. The Arctic accounts for a total population of about 4 million, spread across all the eight Arctic states in the region. The Russian Arctic alone accounts for approximately 2 million people divided into various ethnic and indigenous groups.10 Norway’s agenda of pursuing policies for the benefit of Arctic indigenous communities in its upcoming Chairship cannot possibly ignore 50 per cent of the population that lives in the Russian Arctic. Issues related to health and livelihood of all people in the north are equally important and therefore would require careful policies to benefit everyone.


    Given the ongoing geopolitical contestations and the current state of Norway’s relations with Russia, Norway may not be able to fully realise the ambitious agenda for its upcoming presidency of the Arctic Council. Cooperation with Russia seems difficult in the near future given the growing level of mistrust between the two countries. Further, some observers states within the council seem divided in their view regarding the future legitimacy of the Council without Russia.11  Therefore, Norway’s upcoming Chairship needs a balanced approach to meet its set objectives.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.