The Arctic Council added China and five other countries as official observers yesterday, expanding the focus of the organization and underscoring the complicated politics created by newly open waters in the north because of climate change.
The council -- which consists of eight Arctic countries -- granted observer status to India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore in addition to China.
The group deferred a final decision about an observer application from the European Union, although it welcomed the union's request "affirmatively." The E.U.'s bid faced a challenge from Canadian leaders in particular, who said the bloc's ban on seal products threatens the livelihoods of indigenous peoples.
As expected, council member states also signed the second legally binding pact negotiated under its auspices -- an oil spill response agreement -- and released comprehensive assessments of ocean acidification and biodiversity, which experts said could be important in getting those issues onto the radars of national leaders.
The biodiversity assessment, for example, says that climate change is by far the most serious Arctic biodiversity threat, driving northward migrations of trees, mammals and fish.
"Temperatures we know in the Arctic are increasing more than twice as fast as global averages, and they are endangering habitats and they are endangering ways of life," said Secretary of State John Kerry at the biennial meeting of the 17-year-old council yesterday in Kiruna, Sweden.
Arctic sea ice reached historic lows last summer, and some scientists predict an ice-free summer could occur by midcentury, a possibility that could spur interest in new shipping lanes and opportunities for drilling in the resource-rich region.
Agreement on black carbon controls fails
Environmentalists expressed frustration, however, about the council's pace considering issues such as ecosystem-based management and control of short-lived climate warmers like black carbon, a sooty pollutant formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels and biomass. The official declaration signed in Sweden establishes a task force on black carbon and calls for continued development of national black carbon emission inventories for Arctic nations.
While those are welcome steps, they do not go far enough, said Erika Rosenthal, a staff attorney at Earthjustice. There have already been two task forces on black carbon and reports outlining mitigation measures, so it is time to move into high-level talks that could lead to binding restrictions on the pollutant, she said.
Another environmentalist familiar with the negotiations said an agreement on black carbon had been under consideration but was tabled because of concerns from countries with old industrial operations and confusion between government agencies in another member state of the council.
A study in January said black carbon is a far more potent warming influence than originally suspected (ClimateWire, Jan. 16).
Jonathan Banks, an analyst with the Clean Air Task Force, said that he was also "disappointed" with the lack of progress on black carbon but that Kerry's presence at the council and his strong words bode well for America's chairmanship two years from now.
"I think it's extremely important that he was there," Banks said. "It shows the importance of the council, and it foreshadows a real interest by this administration in the Arctic."
In a release, the council said short-lived climate pollutants, along with a new circumpolar business forum, will be a focus of Canada's two-year chairmanship.