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Arctic Council adopts framework to reduce 'black carbon,' methane

Short-lived emissions have greater near-term warming impact than CO2; may cause Arctic melt, rise in global sea levels

The eight nations that make up the Arctic Council were set to adopt a framework on Friday in Canada’s far-northern city of Iqaluit to reduce potent, short-lived black carbon and methane emissions in a move meant to slow the more immediate effects of climate change.

Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Greenland, Russia, Canada and the United States met this week for the ninth Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, as the Council’s two-year rotating chairmanship passes from Canada to the U.S. The Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by Arctic governments and the indigenous people of the region.

The meeting took place against a backdrop of accelerating ice-melt in the Arctic and scientific assessments on the climate impacts of so-called black carbon — a compound produced by the use of diesel fuel — and by methane released by gas development and permafrost melt

Unlike carbon dioxide emissions, which remain in the atmosphere for centuries and take longer to affect the climate, black carbon and methane are short-lived. But many scientists say they have a far greater warming impact in the near term, and research has shown that reducing them could be an effective method of slowing global warming in the near future.

“The melting of the Arctic land mass, ice sheets and glaciers is more rapid now than has ever been measured, and contributes to sea level rise in the rest of the world,” said Erika Rosenthal, an attorney who was at the meeting and represents the Arctic Athabaskan Council — one of six indigenous organizations granted special observer status for the Arctic Council.

Arctic sea ice reached a record low in 2014 due to climate change, with the maximum extent of ice before the melting season the smallest in the satellite record.

“We need to do everything we can in the next 5 to10 years to reduce these short-lived climate forces to slow the warming,” said Rosenthal, who is a lawyer for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm.

Arctic melting is accelerating, and is melting twice as fast as ice in other areas of the world, Rosenthal said. That melting — in addition to affecting Arctic communities’ way of life by influencing the ecosystem they depend on for subsistence living — could lead to other impacts around the world.

For example, the melting contributes to rising sea levels that threaten to displace millions in low-lying coastal areas over the next decades. It also poses an existential threat to small island states that may be swallowed by the ocean before the end of the century. Some scientists have predicted a three- to seven-foot sea level rise by 2100.

Though the Arctic Council’s framework for reducing those short-lived emissions is not legally binding, Council members largely consider it an "actionable commitment." That means member states are expected to sign a treaty, fulfill reporting requirements to determine the sources of emissions that affect the Arctic, and report on what they are doing to reduce those emissions.

“All eight states are on board and making high-level political commitments to reduce emissions of black carbon and methane for the benefit of their own northern communities and to slow warming and arctic melting, which they all recognize in the framework has having a huge global benefit,” Rosenthal said.

Though the Arctic Council has until now been considered more of a high-level policy and think-tank forum crucial to scientific and policy cooperation, it is maturing into a regional, multi-governmental forum that can take action and deliver on its commitments, Rosenthal told Al Jazeera.

Critical to its progress is the membership of the indigenous organizations granted observer status on the Council, Rosenthal said. Indigenous participants have special knowledge about the region and have been outspoken about the need to take action to reduce emissions to safeguard their own human rights and those of other vulnerable populations around the world, Rosenthal added.

“What we do in the Arctic affects the world,” Rosenthal said. “Saving the Arctic is saving the world.”

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