Russia, China and looming environmental disaster at the Arctic Circle

By Elías Thorsson - October 19, 2023
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Arctic Circle Chairman and former President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson gave the opening address at the Arctic Circle (Arctic Circle)

The tenth annual Arctic Circle conference opened in the capital of Iceland today with world leaders, business people and academics coming together to discuss the most pressing issues facing the region. Somewhat metaphorical for the environmental and security turmoil that has come to define the Arctic, Reykjavík was hit with gale winds and an autumn storm that canceled most flights, leaving several attendees stranded in airports around the world.

With 700 speakers participating in 200 sessions it is humanly impossible to attend even half of what is on offer, but the size of the conference is testament to the interest the Arctic attracts. 

Several non-Arctic nations are present at the conference with China being the most influential. In recent years, China has shown keen interest in investing in the region — not wanting to miss out on the Arctic’s growing number of opportunities. It was with a focus on China that the conference got underway with panelists discussing the role the country will play in the Arctic in the near future. As Russia gets isolated from Western countries, China has spotted an opportunity to step in. 

The specter of Russia also loomed large over the day with sessions on how the other Arctic nations should manage risks and relationships with the adversarial country, shipping through the Northern Sea Route and the need for increased security cooperation between the Nordic states.  

The main stage opened with an address by Arctic Circle Chairman and former President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. He was joined on stage by Prime Minister of Iceland Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Lars Løkke Rasmussen where they discussed the key challenges the conference seeks to address over the coming days. 

Understandably much of the first day was spent on environmental issues facing an ever warming Arctic. Sultan al-Jaber, the Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology of the United Arab Emirates, managing director and group CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC Group) and the president-Designate of the upcoming COP28 climate conference addressed attendees via video, speaking about the dangers facing the region. He discussed how temperatures in the Arctic were increasing at a rate four times that of the rest of the world and how melting of Greenland’s glaciers threatens the world.

Sultan al-Jaber, the President-Designate gave a keynote via video. (Arctic Circle)

Al-jaber’s appointment as the head of COP28 has not been without controversy as he remains CEO of the national oil company of the world’s eighth largest oil producing country and a similar criticism might be aimed at his prominence here. 

The business community is also well represented at the event and many sessions revolved around the multitude of opportunities in the region, especially in commodities and tourism. Usually individual companies are not given headliner status, but the first Arctic startup unicorn, the Icelandic company Kerecis, took to the main stage to provide insights that might help other founders in the region grow their businesses.

CEO of Kerecis Gudmundur Fertram Sigurjonsson gave a talk about his company’s origin and how he founded the Arctic’s first unicorn. (Arctic Today)

Among other sessions of the opening day were:

  • Plastics in the North Atlantic
  • Gender equality
  • The future of investment in the Arctic
  • How to respond to more frequent wildfires in the Artic
  • Indigenous languages and leadership
  • Food security

The Arctic Circle runs through 21 October and for a full rundown of the program click here.