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.

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."

Annika Nilsson, a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said given that ice melt in the Arctic has happened faster than even scientists expected, communities in the region need adaptation strategies that can respond to fast-moving environmental changes.

"It will have to be structured in a way that we can expand our capacity to meet different types of challenges, even challenges that we don't really know yet what they are," she said.

In four case studies -- reindeer herding in Finnmark, commercial shipping through the Bering Strait, transformations in wildlife subsistence systems in the southwest Yukon and food security -- the authors look in depth at the challenges that change in the Arctic will bring and what various communities may need to do to adapt to a new, warmer world.

In the case of the Bering Strait, which connects the north Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean, changing patterns of sea ice cover have altered the currents and affected subsistence communities' ability to hunt. Meanwhile, ship traffic through the straits is expected to rise sharply as the Arctic warms. And, another consequence, a growing number of whales are getting killed by ships -- a problem that the authors noted could have food security implications as well as political ones.

"Policy analysts are seeking to ascertain the potential effects of Arctic shipping in anticipation of an ice-free North, and are doing so with limited understanding of impacts on local communities, market demands, technology, and rates of change," the report says.

Cornell added, "We tend to think that people in the north look after the north and people in the south look after the south. We're starting to see a much more interconnected world."

China, South Korea and other nations newly granted observer status at the council are proof of that, she and others noted. Finnish Environment Minister Ville Niinistö, in Washington, D.C., earlier this week, called it "very positive that interest in the Arctic region has increased."

At the same time, Niinistö said: "We also know why the interest is there. The role of the Arctic is changing, and not just for the good. We have to find better environmental practices and safeguards before the use of the Arctic region increases."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500