“Sustainable development” has become the go-to buzzword when talking about the future as governments, researchers, and policy-makers face increasing climate changes and global interconnectedness, both of which come with a host of legal and political challenges.
Despite the importance and concreteness of these future complexities, the terminology surrounding “sustainable development” remains vague, and properly implementing a sustainable development framework requires that the term first be defined such that targets can be set.
Although interpretations of this “sustainable development” varies, one thing is clear: a sustainable future must involve a greater degree of convergence between rich and poor countries. In other words, a sustainable framework will include a much more level economic playing field and more equitable access to resources.
As climate change increases human accessibility to previously remote regions, resource exploitation has become quite topical in the context of offshore resource exploitation and international governance in the Arctic. The McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law and Policy hosted its 2014 colloquium on Arctic Law to explore the rights, risks, and ramifications that will have to be addressed as the Arctic Ocean – and the 30% of global natural gas and the 13% of world oil reserves that it contains – becomes accessible due to the melting of the polar ice caps. It is ultimately a testament to the complexity of the Arctic legal landscape that this colloquium also raised questions as it answered them.
The panelists at this event are by no means the only experts who are giving these questions the serious thought that they deserve. Since 1996, the Arctic Council has been working to address questions of environmental protection and the ever-ambiguous sustainable development in the fragile northern-most region of the world. The permanent members of this council consist of Canada, the United States, Denmark (through Greenland), Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. However, it is only through the Council’s recent inclusion of non-Arctic observer members such as India, China, South Korea, Italy, and Japan that this intergovernmental body can hope to put in place a truly sustainable framework by bringing as many countries as possible into the discussion.
It is interesting to note that, of the countries vying for economic dominance in the Arctic, the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Norway are all unambiguously classified as high income developed countries, while Russia is acknowledged as an emerging economy. As such, aside from ensuring the equitable division of resource revenues between industry and local communities, the question of whether or not Arctic resource extraction increases inequity on an international scale must also be considered. If Arctic resources and their associated revenues are retained exclusively by the wealthier nations, then is the goal of reducing the income gap between rich and poor countries pushed even further out of reach? Or is there some way to mandate that a portion of the funds be set aside for official development assistance?
While developing countries presently have a limited voice in Arctic issues, the current negotiations could also present an unprecedented opportunity to design a multilateral agreement that allocates revenues in a manner that is consistent with sustainable development objectives. As such, the current legal entanglements could have a silver lining: if such a framework could be successfully developed, it could potentially serve as a model for future agreements. If the international Arctic coordination dilemma could be solved, then hopefully the lessons learned could be applied to other policy quandaries. It remains to be seen if reality can meet my cautious optimism.
Arctic issues do not only affect the countries that are currently laying claim to Arctic waters and their hidden treasures, but rather involve all nations as the manner of their extraction and their exploitation will have environmental and sociopolitical repercussions that will be felt on an international scale. If governmental negotiators and policymakers can seize upon this unique opportunity to design a resource agreement that is equitable, then perhaps we can take the first step towards a policy framework that is truly “sustainable”.