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Arctic States Leave the Shadows of Black Carbon and Methane

With national reports on black carbon and methane emissions submitted, the Arctic Council lays a solid groundwork for setting common reduction targets in 2017.

By Freja C. Eriksen

Home to about four million people, it may seem that what the Arctic’s inhabitants - even working together - can do to mitigate climate change, is be a drop in rising oceans. In 2015, however, the Arctic Council unanimously adopted a framework directed at just this. This for the first time, according to environmental lawyer at Earthjustice Erika Rosenthal.

  • They will for the first time be tackling climate change mitigation… Arctic nations have an opportunity to lead, Rosenthal said to NunatsiaqOnline in April last year.

The framework, Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions Reductions – An Arctic Council Framework for Action, was adopted by the Arctic Council in April 2014. But about a year and four months later, what are the results of its existence?

To erase dark areas

To clarify, the framework is directed at reducing black carbon and methane. Quick reductions in black carbon and methane have been identified as a possible way to reduce Arctic warming temporarily over the next few decades. Though this will not turn around global warming, it may prove a valuable temporary staller.

Black carbon, a component of what we commonly call soot, has an especially visible effect in the Arctic. The images of sparkling white ice sheets we associate with the Arctic are darkening as a result of black carbon emissions. Black carbon from diesel vehicles, shipping, electricity, open burning and gas flaring settles on and covers ice caps, absorbing instead of reflecting sunlight. This creates warming, increases melting and gradually causes a snowball effect - no pun intended. More exposed dark water warms and creates further melting.

Reducing emissions of black carbon and methane in the Arctic itself might therefore have a greater effect than thought, at least in the short run. Though the Arctic is only inhabited by just above four million, the eight Arctic nations - Canada, USA, Russian Federation, Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden - add up to many more. The Arctic States and the Council’s Observer States are, according to Kaarle Kupiainen, estimated to make up 50% of the global anthropogenic black carbon and methane emitted.

Laying common ground

The Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions Reductions Framework has four elements - striving for a ‘common vision’, ‘national action’, ‘collective action’, and ‘action by others’ - which can be evaluated at this point. A common vision has been set through the adaptation of the framework, the first step the Council has taken to mitigate global warming ever. That is, in itself, considered a breakthrough by some. National action, the second element of the framework, is supported by the reports all Arctic nations must submit a year into the process. The first batch of these reports, from September 2015, may give us an idea of the progress in reductions. While they vary in focus, length and of course content, they show eight states gathering their very diverse data on black carbon and methane emissions, foremost creating a valuable basis for future comparison and cooperation. A closer look at the inventories suggests a general decline, and projections of further decline, in black carbon emissions. Methane emissions have increased in more states (in e.g. USA, Denmark and recently slightly in Canada – though not in Sweden). An additional eight Observer States and the EU have submitted their own inventories, showing commitment to the aim of action by others than the Arctic States themselves.  

As the framework is non-binding and will set no targets for reductions until 2017, there are no numbers yet, we can hold member states accountable to. Yet, as reports come in they will be evaluated by the Arctic Council’s Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane. This linking of scientific research and mitigation efforts is a step forward. In 2017, the Council will meet again to set collective targets for reductions, and thus the level of collective action will meet its test. So far, a solid ground work has been laid.

Photo credit: Freja C. Eriksen, photo of the end of Ilulissat Icefjord, which receded by 12 kilometers in just one year between 2002 and 2003 and attracts tourists from far - another impact of climate change.