Chill in the air as Arctic nations meet

Jo Biddle AFP Yahoo News 25 Apr 15;

Arctic nations warned Friday of the dangers facing the environment and the peoples of the remote region, as it now also becomes a new flashpoint in global tensions with Russia.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as everywhere else on the globe and US officials last month said the Arctic sea ice had reached its lowest winter point since satellite observations began in the late 1970s.

While the polar melt is of major concern because of rising sea levels, it is also opening up new ocean trade routes, and offering the tantalizing promise of untapped offshore oil and gas fields in an energy-hungry world.

"One of the biggest challenges everybody has talked about today is climate change. The numbers are alarming -- and that's putting it mildly," US Secretary of State John Kerry told ministers as the United States took over from Canada as the chairman of the Arctic Council.

"As we take necessary steps to prepare for climate change, we also have a shared responsibility to do everything we can to slow its advance, and we cannot afford to take our eye off that ball."

He was meeting in the small northeastern Canadian town of Iqaluit, on Baffin Island, with other ministers from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.

The town, which grew up around a World War II US air base, now boasts a population of about 7,500, with more residents flocking to the remote region, drawn by work in iron ore and diamond mines.

The US is putting forward a framework action plan to rein in methane gas emissions and black carbon -- or soot -- created through such activities as gas flaring or oil exploration.

It would mark the first time that the Arctic Council has reached an accord to work together to mitigate the effects of climate change through regional action.

A framework accord on working to reduce black soot and methane "sends a hugely important message that climate change mitigation can be organized regionally as well as globally," said Alaskan fisherman Michael Stickman, chairman of the Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC).

Kerry warned black carbon is up to 2,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide, while methane gas escaping from thawing permafrost is 20 times more dangerous to the atmosphere than CO2.
- Russia tensions -

There are underlying tensions though, as Russia, under global sanctions due to its role in the conflict in Ukraine, begins to flex its muscles in the region.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not attend the meeting, with Moscow sending environment minister Sergei Donskoi instead.

Lavrov's absence was regretted by Stickman, who said the Arctic should be shielded from international tensions.

"No matter what is happening in the outside world, cooperation in the Arctic is moving forward," Donskoi insisted.

"There is no room here for confrontation or fear-mongering," he said, adding Russia was "against politicizing the Arctic."

Although Canadian Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said she had privately voiced anger at Russia's role in Ukraine, she sought to downplay any fallout for the work of the council, saying it was done through consensus.

But Kerry again took issue with Moscow's actions in eastern Ukraine, pointing the finger at Russia in saying that "it is clear at this point in time" that the Minsk ceasefire deal "has not been lived up to sufficiently."

According to a 2008 study by the US Geological Survey, the Arctic may hold 13 percent of the planet's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world's natural gas.

While tackling climate change will be high on the US agenda as chair of the Arctic Council, Washington also hopes to improve ocean stewardship, maritime safety and the lives of the Arctic's four million inhabitants.

The melting ice also creates shorter shipping routes between the Pacific and the Atlantic -- connecting markets in Europe and Asia, with the numbers of ships crossing the Bering Strait on the rise.

Nations are also gearing up for major UN talks in Paris in December to agree a new international pact pegging global warming to 2C over pre-industrial levels.