Recent calculations indicate that Arctic summers may become nearly ice-free by 2030. That’s why the federal government’s strategy for preventing the Arctic melt has been one of the most long-awaited policy provisions by environmentalists across Canada. After three years of collaboration with territorial and provincial governments, Northern residents, and over 25 Indigenous organizations, the federal government released its lengthy Arctic and Northern Policy Framework on September 10, 2019.
The overarching goal of this framework is to lay out key national priorities and investments within Northern Canada. Representing the first phase of a continuing process, this strategic plan will officially replace former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2009 Northern Strategy and Canada’s 2010 Arctic Foreign Policy. However, despite a much-anticipated outcome, the roadmap provided in the policy appears to be shifting away from actionable framework for ensuring environmental conservation of the Arctic. Its broad targets aimed at economic and infrastructural advancements fail to account for the potential adverse impacts on Arctic biodiversity.
Ambitious, yet ambiguous
According to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the most threatening consequences of the Arctic ice melt is losing the reflective elements of ice, as the bright surface reflects over 80 percent of sunlight from Earth into space. Without the reflective properties of ice, the dark ocean surface absorbs significantly more heat, which accelerates the melting rate of ice and intensifies global warming overall. As a result, losing the surface qualities of ice would be equivalent to releasing over 1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A recent NASA report also revealed that the Arctic permafrost carries massive amounts of carbon and methane gas in frozen soil, so the ice melt would take global warming towards destructive acceleration.
In response to this climate crisis, the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework announced a commitment to ensuring that “Canadian Arctic and Northern ecosystems are healthy and resilient.” Unfortunately, this was listed as priority number seven of eight. And while it represents a great vision, the language used is far too vague to be helpful.
Similarly, although the report recognizes that the Canadian North is warming three times faster than the global average, and that climate emergencies in the North have severely damaged Indigenous lands and biodiversity, it contains little on “how” such issues will be addressed. There are also no timelines or budgets attached to the vague commitments to partnerships and sustainability.
A need for sustainable infrastructure
A significant emphasis is placed on building roads and transportation systems that efficiently connect Nunavut to the rest of Canada. While the needs of local Indigenous communities must be met first and foremost, there are no details on how policymakers aim to actualize this extensive construction project in a sustainable and equitable manner. The framework needs to include a clear statement on how the building of these physical structures can still guarantee the safety of the Arctic habitat and migration routes. For instance, transportation routes for Indigenous communities should not be built where key Northern animals (like the Bathurst caribou herd) may be threatened or endangered. It must also ensure that the project is undertaken with low-carbon infrastructure, so that its structural components do not destroy the ecological systems required to preserve the conditions of our natural environment.
Through a transformative lens of climate justice
Overall, Canada’s new Arctic and Northern Policy Framework is a positive step forward. But it needs additional precision in order to be most effective. It is essential that the next phase of the policy framework includes a concrete implementation plan to ensure the economic security, prosperity, and growth for Indigenous communities through the lens of climate justice. Such clarity would serve to demonstrate how the government plans to execute this massive enterprise. While the Northern regions of Canada may feel far-removed and disconnected from the rest of the country, we must recognize the interconnectedness of our planet’s climate system. What happens in the Arctic echoes against other climate changes in millions of intricate ways around the world.
The climate crisis requires that our federal government approach Arctic and Northern communities with conscientious, feasible and far-reaching policies that concretely manage the impact of climate change on the melting ice caps of the Arctic.