Sustainable Development in the Arctic: SDGs and the Role of the Arctic Council

As the Arctic experiences dramatic environmental, economic, and social changes, a roadmap for sustainable development is essential. This article explores the need for contextualizing the Sustainable Development Goals to meet the unique challenges of the Arctic, and the ability of the Arctic Council to play a facilitating role.
Image by Spencer Williams. Taken in Tromsø, Norway.

The Arctic is a region undergoing rapid change, facing significant environmental and social disruption concurrent with economic opportunity and growing international interest. Sustainable development calls for building the capabilities to take advantage of these opportunities, while ensuring environmental protection and strengthening community resilience.

In 2015, the United Nations 2030 Agenda introduced 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), each outlining detailed and measurable objectives. The present and future of the Arctic are being actively shaped by the forces of climate change and globalization, pressures that disrupt traditional livelihoods. Progress towards the SDGs appears critical for the health and prosperity of the Arctic’s inhabitants and their communities. But several questions remain: what does, or what should sustainable development in the Arctic context look like? How useful or actionable are the SDG targets in the circumpolar North?

I. The Arctic Council:

As the Arctic grows increasingly important in the global economic and political arena, it has attracted the attention of numerous actors, leading to the formation and engagement of local, regional, and global organizations. Among these, the Arctic Council is a leading forum for high-level dialogue and international cooperation. The Council is a multilayered intergovernmental body established in 1996, comprising the eight Arctic nations (Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States), six Permanent Participants representing the various Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, and thirty-eight observers, ranging from NGOs to other national governments. The eight Arctic nations share the chairmanship on a two-year rotating basis; all decisions are made by consensus. The Council’s unconventional structure attracts praise for its inclusivity, and criticism for its lack of legal authority. Despite its limited authority for lawmaking or enforcement, the Arctic Council is arguably the most influential body with respect to Arctic governance. Due to its constraints, the Council’s success in pursuing its objectives depends on its ability to work with other stakeholders.

The Arctic Council was established with the dual mandate of environmental protection and sustainable development, expressly avoiding the more politically-charged issues of military and security. While environmental protection was prioritized initially, sustainable development has been growing in prominence.[1] However, concern has been expressed that this could come at the expense of a focus on the environment, and the tension between these two objectives is a key dynamic for the Council to address.[2]

II. Sustainable Development:

The concept of sustainable development originated with the 1987 Brundtland Report. The concept was broadly outlined as the ability to “meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future.”[3] This doctrine at its core seeks the simultaneous advancement of its three pillars: environmental protection, economic development, and social development. Each of these is significant in the Arctic context.

i) Environment

No part of the planet is experiencing the effects of climate change as rapidly or dramatically as the Arctic, which is warming at more than twice the global average rate.[4] Melting permafrost threatens communities and infrastructure, while shifting wildlife habitats disrupt traditional ways of life. Moreover, the majority of these changes are caused by actions originating outside of the Arctic, leaving little choice but to adapt.

ii) Economy

As global interest in the Arctic builds, economic activity appears certain to increase as well. For example, a melting ice shield in Arctic Ocean could lead to a surge in commercial shipping and tourism. There is also a desire to exploit the fossil fuel resources on the seabed that will become more accessible as the ice melts. However, other opportunities are also being pursued, namely the blue bio-economy (BBE) based on living aquatic resources, which is touted for its untapped potential.[5] Another important development is the Snowflake research station, set to open in 2023. The facility plans to be powered by hydrogen and other renewable sources as part of the Arctic Hydrogen Energy Applications and Demonstration (AHEAD) project.[6] Innovative projects such as this seek advance more sustainable forms of economic development while reducing reliance on diesel across the region.

iii) Social

Sustainable development in the Arctic must seek active participation and input from its inhabitants. The Arctic is not empty, but home to some 4 million inhabitants, including an estimated 1 million Indigenous peoples.[7] The protection of Indigenous cultures, languages, and ways of life is a top priority, while youth outmigration is a pressing concern for the social and economic sustainability of the Arctic. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has amplified longstanding challenges of digital connectivity, food security, and infrastructure.

III. The SDGs: An imperfect fit

Much of the Arctic Council’s work is organized through its six working groups, typically made up of researchers and government representatives. This includes the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG). The SDWG conducts activities to promote and further sustainable development across the categories of health and well-being, economic activity, cultural heritage, management of natural resources, climate change adaptation, and infrastructure development.

However, the Council’s work on sustainable development should not be automatically equated with the SDGs. For example, there is work crucial to sustainable development in the region that is not clearly reflected in the 169 targets of the SDGs, including promoting Indigenous voices and the use of traditional knowledge, and concepts such as self-determination that are of considerable importance in the region.[8] For this reason, some scholars argue that many of the SDGs require modifications to be properly applied to the Arctic context, while acknowledging the usefulness of a common global framework.[9]

In particular, the language of the SDGs frequently refers explicitly to developing or least developed countries, labels that are not typically associated with the Arctic nations. However, the reality in the Arctic, particularly among Indigenous communities, is that living conditions are often far more similar to that of developing countries than of their own countries. This creates a politically delicate environment, in which the Arctic nations are reluctant to use the language of the SDGs.[10]

Additionally, the SDGs are envisioned and evaluated on a nation-by-nation basis. It is crucial to recognize that the needs in the North American Arctic differ dramatically from the Russian Arctic, and again from the Nordic nations. Furthermore, there is opposition within the Arctic nations to southern-based governments making decisions for Northern communities. Sustainable development strategies must therefore include locally adapted solutions in combination with regional strategies to reflect this diversity.[11]

IV. SDG 17: A useful perspective.

These issues notwithstanding, the role of the Arctic Council appears particularly valuable in the context of SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals). Facing the twin pressures of globalization and climate change, Liisa Rohweder of WWF Finland’s statement that “Nobody is able to achieve any of the sustainable development goals alone” rings especially true in the Arctic.[12] The value of a collaborative approach in the Arctic was reaffirmed by the theme of this year’s Arctic Frontiers conference – “Building Bridges”. To meet these challenges in a sparsely populated region faced with inadequate infrastructure and accelerating climate change, partnerships are a necessary strategy to share resources and best practices. Progress towards SDG 17 is therefore of particular importance, as it helps to capture the holistic approach needed. Two components of SDG 17 are particularly promising: 17.14: Enhance policy coherence for sustainable development; and 17.15: Respect each country’s policy space and leadership to establish and implement policies for poverty eradication and sustainable development. The Arctic typifies soft governance, with relatively few binding treaties, operating instead through extensive networks of organizations. Within this landscape, the Arctic Council acts as a focal point capable of setting a common agenda.

V. Conclusion

As the Arctic undergoes transformation amid heightened international attention, the Arctic Council appears ideally positioned to coordinate a circumpolar approach to sustainable development. While the various SDG targets may not be of universal relevance for all countries or communities, a focus on SDG 17 provides a roadmap to move forward. Although it ultimately falls to individual nations to meet the SDGs, the Arctic Council can continue to operate as an orchestrator, facilitating collaboration across networks and“building bridges” in pursuit of sustainable development.


[1] See Douglas Nord, The Arctic Council: Governance within the Far North (New York and London: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3] See United Nations, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future (1987) at 34.

[4] See J Cohen et al., “Divergent consensuses on Arctic amplification influence on midlatitude severe winter weather” (2020) 10 Nature Climate Change 20 at 20.

[5] See European Commission, “How the blue bioeconomy supports blue growth” online: European Commission <>; Alexandra Brzozowski, “Arctic nations bet on ‘blue economy’ to reconcile climate, development goals” (4 February 2019), online: EURACTIV < climate-development-goals/>.

[6] See Charles Diggins, “Snowflake research center will offer sustainable solutions to Arctic energy questions” (3 November 2020), online: Bellona <>.

[7] See Joan Nymand Larson & Gail Fondahl, eds, Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR), Copenhagen: Nordisk Ministerråd, 2015.

[8] See Timo Koivurova, “Why the Arctic needs the UN Sustainable Development Goals” (2018) 2 The Circle 6 at 7. 

[9] See Peter Sköld, et al, “The SDGs and the Arctic: The need for polar indicators” (2018), online: EU-PolarNet <

[10] See Nils Andreassen, “Op-Ed: The Arctic and Sustainable Development Goals” (24 October 2018), online: High North News <>.

[11] See Annika E Nilsson & Joan Nymnad Larsen, "Making Regional Sense of Global Sustainable Development Indicators for the Arctic" (2020) 12:3 Sustainability 1027 <>.

[12] See Arctic Finland, “Sustainable Development Goals in the Arctic region” (2020) online: Arctic Finland <>.


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