The European Union has called for oil, coal and gas in the Arctic to stay in the ground, as it announced aspirations to play a greater role in the world’s northernmost region.

The EU, which has three member states with Arctic territory, said there was a “geopolitical necessity” for it to be involved in the region, as global heating opens up competition for resources and the prospect of new shipping lanes.

In a policy paper published on Wednesday, the Commission promised to aim for “a multilateral legal obligation not to allow any further hydrocarbon reserve development in the Arctic or contiguous regions”, which would include a pact not to buy any fossil fuels that are developed.

Earlier this year US president Joe Biden suspended oil drilling licenses in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, undoing a decision of his predecessor, Donald Trump. The Canadian government also issued a five-year moratorium on drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic sea in 2016.

But the other large Arctic state, Russia, is highly unlikely to join any moratorium any time soon. For Russia, the Arctic’s natural resources are worth 10% of its economic output, and the Kremlin is considering new shipping lanes. Last year, Rosneft started drilling two wells in the Arctic Sea, after an earlier project was suspended because of problems linked to western sanctions.

A boat navigates a large iceberg in eastern Greenland.
A boat navigates a large iceberg in eastern Greenland. Photograph: Felipe Dana/AP

The EU is a net importer of Arctic oil and gas and estimates it is responsible for 36% of the Arctic’s black carbon deposits in the Arctic, which accelerates global heating by darkening icebergs and land that would otherwise reflect back the sun’s rays.

EU commissioner for the environment, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said: “The Arctic region is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet. The melting of ice and thawing of permafrost in the Arctic further accelerate climate change and have huge knock-on effects.” Sinkevičius promised a strong link between the EU’s Arctic engagement and climate policy.

The document was drawn up by Sinkevičius and the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell. As such it also reflects an anxiety not to allow other powers, such as Russia and China, to dominate the region. “Intensified interest in Arctic resources and transport routes could transform the region into an arena of local and geopolitical competition and possible tensions, possibly threatening the EU’s interests,” the paper states.

Five of the Arctic Council’s eight members are either EU member states (Sweden, Finland, Denmark) or closely associated with the EU (Norway and Iceland). Denmark’s Arctic territory, Greenland, chose to leave the European Economic Community in 1985, although it remains a self-governing part of Denmark. The EU now wants to establish an office in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital.

The other three members of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body intended to promote cooperation in the region, are Canada, Russia and the United States.

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