China looks for new sea routes
The decision to grant observer status to China and other nations is a significant milestone and signals the council's shift from a regional body to a more international one, several analysts said. The council consists of eight member states -- Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States -- and six permanent participants representing indigenous peoples, as well as working groups.
China has mining interests in Greenland, and its icebreaker Snow Dragon became the first Chinese vessel to cross the Arctic Ocean last year. The country's leaders have expressed concerns that the majority of energy imports from the Middle East run through the Strait of Malacca south of Singapore.
"If new Arctic shipping lanes opened up, it could ease the Malacca Strait dilemma" for China by providing quicker and faster ways to move goods around, said Malte Humpert, executive director at the Arctic Institute.
A March study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus found that ships may be able to travel through previously inconceivable routes across the North Pole by midcentury because of melting ice (ClimateWire, March 5).
As an observer, China and other countries will gain easier access to council meetings but will not be able to formally vote on pending matters.
The council also released a new manual that restricts what observers can do, one of several reasons why the new observers may not alter the overall direction of the council or its general decisionmaking process much, said Heather Conley, director of the European program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In many ways, the change in observers "is a very modest step," she said.
Yet the addition of countries like China could speed up decisionmaking processes in Arctic bodies outside the council, said Bill Eichbaum, vice president of marine and Arctic policy at the World Wildlife Fund.
The International Maritime Organization is considering whether to develop a mandatory polar code on safety for ships in Arctic waters, a process supported by the council. It would set safety standards for things such as ship design.
But the IMO process is moving slowly, partially because countries not on the council are considering the issue for the first time, Eichbaum said. If they had been observers on the council in the first place, "we wouldn't have to invent the wheel in a whole different forum," Eichbaum said about the IMO.
Also yesterday, the Arctic Council along with several think tanks released a sweeping study finding the abrupt changes in the region are affecting everything from snowbed formation to the practice of reindeer husbandry.
The "Arctic Resilience Interim Report" notes that global climate change is causing irreversible damage to local ecosystems. At the same time, local environmental changes in the Arctic will have a profound impact on the global economy, particularly as melting ice makes way for increased shipping in the region. The report, 18 months in the making, aims to help policymakers grapple with the range of environmental, social and economic disruptions.
Coping with accelerating changes
"This first stage really feels like we've been putting the pieces of a mosaic down on the table. Everywhere we have looked, we've seen change. Of course, everything always changes, but this is happening very fast," said Sarah Cornell, coordinator of the Planetary Boundaries initiative at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
"It is hard to see how any ecological systems in the Arctic are going to do well if we continue to warm the planet at the rate we're warming it," she said. "At the same time, there is no denying that these rapid changes are times of opportunity. We can't play down that story."