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Arctic landscape with Northern Lights
Credit: Incredible Arctic/Shutterstock
28 April 2015 14:45

How successfully can the Arctic Council tackle climate change?

Sophie Yeo


Sophie Yeo

28.04.2015 | 2:45pm
ArcticHow successfully can the Arctic Council tackle climate change?

The US has promised to make climate action a priority of its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council is the main forum for intergovernmental cooperation in the Arctic. Its permanent members include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. The US counts as an Arctic nation by dint of Alaska, which was purchased from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million.

The US government set out its domestic strategy for the region in 2013, with a plan of implementation released in January 2014. In July 2014, the State Department appointed its first-ever special representative for Arctic issues, Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr. This is the second time that the US has held chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

Despite this, the US is widely regarded as a minor player in Arctic issues, with Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security accusing the administration of failing to dedicate sufficient financial resources to cement their interest in the region.

US agenda

Assuming chairmanship of the Arctic Council on 24 April, US secretary of state John Kerry set out a wide-ranging programme of activities up to 2017.

The US plans to tackle two short-lived but potent pollutants – methane and black carbon – as part of its efforts to slow down the onset of global warming, which is causing rapid change to the Arctic.

A major component of soot, black carbon peppers the surface of the Arctic have travelled from areas as far flung as Chicago, Rome and Beijing, accelerating warming and melting.

Together, Arctic member states and observers – including China, India and Germany – are responsible for at least 60% of black carbon emissions globally. Of emissions originating from Arctic Council members directly, 61% comes from the US, while 28% from Russia, according to a report by the Center for American Progress.

Black Carbon

Source: Center for American Progress, ‘Saving the Arctic’ August 2014

Under Canada’s chairmanship, an Arctic Council taskforce produced a non-binding framework intended to tackle these pollutants. This commits member states to providing inventories of their black carbon emissions from 2015, and to adopting an ambitious collective goal by 2017, which has yet to be negotiated.

Kerry said that the US intends to press for “full implementation” of this framework while at the helm of the Council.

The US will also push for more access to renewable energy for indigenous communities. Details of the US Arctic Council programme published on the State Department website outlines aims to promote clean technology such as micro-grid systems, spur public-private partnerships and make energy more affordable.

Kerry sold this alternative to the diesel generators used by many Arctic communities as a path to improving the quality of life for indigenous people. The US programme also spells out a target to support adaptation and resilience-building in the vulnerable region, through the creation of an early-warning system.

Finally, Kerry has promised to support the creation of an “enhanced digital elevation map”, which he says will promote understanding of the impacts that climate change will have on the shorelines and surface of the Arctic. This is with a view to making better development decision in the future, he said.


Under Canadian chairmanship, the Arctic Council was focused on economics, with an emphasis on resource development, shipping and sustainable communities. The US decision to put climate change front and centre of its strategy marks a change in the rhetoric of the council.

This is not the first time that climate change has been on the agenda of the Arctic Council. Since 2011, taskforces have released reports into permafrost, black carbon and changes faced by humans and animals as sea ice declines. The council itself grew out of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, which was signed by the eight Arctic nations in 1991.

The difficulty comes in translating science into policy, and the Arctic Council faces a number of limitations when it comes to addressing climate change. The first is the structure of the council itself. Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London earlier this month, Olav Schram Stokke, professor at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, explained:

“Actual governance means to set down legally binding regulations that will set boundaries on what the economic actors, state actors are allowed to do. It’s not the sort of thing the Arctic council has done so far, not the sort of thing the Arctic Council is likely to do in the future.”

The second limitation is money. The Arctic Council sets out the rules and regulations, but it is up to the member states to find the resources to implement these nationally, or across borders.

Among the Arctic states, the US has shown the least interest in developing its presence in the region. For instance, the US currently has five icebreakers; Russia has 37. Malte Humpert, executive director of The Arctic Institute, tells Carbon Brief:

“In the Arctic, the US doesn’t play in the premier league. In Russia, Norway or Canada, the Arctic is definitely higher on the agenda. It will be interesting to see if, despite the fact the Arctic is not the main agenda item in the US, if there will be enough resources allocated to implement the proposed agenda.”

There is also the fact that Arctic Council decisions must be reached by consensus. The recent history of the UN’s climate negotiation forum has demonstrated the extent to which the US, Canada and Russia are at odds on their ambition on this topic.

This is complicated by Russia’s hostility towards its Arctic neighbours, as divisions deepen over the conflict in Ukraine. This is unlikely to herald in a new age of Arctic conflict, but it could make diplomacy more difficult. Indeed, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov shunned the Arctic Council meeting, instead sending the country’s environment minister. Humpert tells Carbon Brief:

“When you get to the level of implementing certain decisions with aspects that could impact Russian economic development in the Arctic, that could tangentially affect Russian security, then I think you get into the territory of a changed political environment. Russia may be less likely to sign an agreement than it would be five years ago, or even two or three years ago.”


These limitations do not mean that the efforts of the US to prioritise climate change within the Arctic Council should be ignored.

Andrew Holland, a fellow at the American Security Project, a US think tank, tells Carbon Brief that tackling black carbon through the forum could lead to “real movement”, as it can be done with existing technology, and does not face a big opposition lobby. Real success may depend on Russia, he adds:

“They have the most industrialised region, the most shipping, so they’re going to be the ones who have to ensure their shipping along the northern sea route has scrubbers on their smoke stacks to stop black carbon coming out, and that their mines and industrial activity in the Arctic is upgraded. With the Russians, enforcement is a challenge. They may agree, but who knows if they actually do anything about it.”

The biggest problem is, of course, that nothing short of a dramatic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions will reverse the kind of changes already taking place in the Arctic. This is something to which all governments must commit, and will likely take place under the UN umbrella.

For all eight Arctic states, their rhetoric on the need to preserve the Arctic does not correspond with their domestic energy strategy. Non-quantified, non-legally binding reductions of black carbon and methane alone will not be enough to stop the melting of the Arctic ice.

The US Arctic strategy outlines plans to develop the oil and gas resources off Alaska, while President Barack Obama cleared the way on 31 March for Shell to drill in the Chukchi sea by upholding a 2008 lease sale.

Russia’s Gazprom and Norway’s Statoil also pursuing Arctic oil exploitation. Humpert tells Carbon Brief:

“You look at the larger picture and you see it’s pretty much empty rhetoric, because oil and gas activities are continuing at record levels with large investments in oil and gas activity in most of the Arctic states.”

The US dedication to putting climate change at the centre of its Arctic policy marks a step away from the focus on the economic development of the region.

But alone, these eight states cannot stop the Arctic melting. What will really determine the future of the region is whether they are able to cooperate at a global scale and deeply reduce their own carbon dioxide emissions.

Image: Arctic landscape with Northern Lights.
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