Arctic Council to address role of soot in global warming

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton touched down Wednesday on Greenland’s rocky, snow-flecked coast for two days of talks on the Arctic, as the Obama administration seeks to draw attention to the rapidly accelerating loss of sea ice and surging interest in the region’s natural resources.

Rapid warming above the Arctic Circle has led to shorter winters and a dramatic thinning of Arctic ice in the past two decades, and new scientific data suggest that the rate of polar melting has accelerated far beyond what scientists had forecast a few years ago. One study, the conclusions of which were released last week, predicts that the resulting rise in global sea levels could reach as much as five feet by the end of the century.

Greenland is also confronting developmental pressures by companies racing to claim natural resources exposed by retreating ice.

“Greenland is coming your way, and faster than you think,” said Brooks Yeager, a former State Department official and vice president of the Washington-based environmental group Clean Air-Cool Planet.

‘Black carbon’

Much of the policy debate over global warming has focused on the role of carbon dioxide emissions, which are caused by fossil-fuel burning and remain trapped in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. But, with its initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions stalled in Congress, the Obama administration has been compelled to explore alternative ways to slow Arctic warming that do not require United Nations-brokered treaties or complex cap-and-trade scenarios.

At this week’s meetings in Greenland, attended by diplomats of the Arctic Council, Clinton will be joined by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Aides said they plan to highlight the role played by “black carbon” — essentially soot from inefficient combustion, such as natural gas flaring, wood stoves and the controlled burning of agricultural waste.

Such pollutants play an outsize role in Arctic warming, scientists say, essentially causing ice to melt faster than can be explained by rising temperatures alone. But instead of an international treaty, Arctic Council nations will be encouraged to adopt measures unilaterally to control emissions of soot as well other “short-term drivers” of Arctic warming, administration officials said.

“The point here is to have a coordinated focus, a coordinated set of efforts to put attention on this issue and to encourage countries to step up to the plate, to take strong actions domestically,” Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg said this week in previewing the trip by Clinton, who will be the first U.S. secretary of state to attend an Arctic Council meeting.

Maritime treaty expected

The council members — which include Russia, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland — are expected to sign the first treaty on maritime search and rescue for the Arctic region and to hold talks on how to protect sensitive polar habitats against an invasion by oil companies, fishing trawlers, cruise ships and others seeking to cash in as polar waters that have long been ice-bound open up.

The challenge of curbing “black carbon” and other short-term drivers of Arctic warming has been a central focus of the council’s scientific advisers for years, but only recently have climate experts found compelling scientific evidence to act. Data collected by the council’s working groups show that short-lived pollutants account for up to 40 percent of the Arctic’s warming, said Gustaf Lind, Sweden’s ambassador to the Arctic Council.

Although some of the pollution stemmed from dirtier diesel engines in North America, woodstoves in Scandinavian countries and the burning of agricultural waste in developing countries contributed to it as well, Lind said.

“The Arctic Council is very much about sustainability in the Arctic,” he said. “Every country, they have to do their homework on black carbon.”

The thousands of tons of soot that settle over the Arctic each year speed the melting of ice sheets, since darker surfaces absorb more heat from the sun, scientists say. The retreating of the ice exposes more land and water, which absorb more solar radiation and boost warming.

Pollution from stoves

One of the areas policymakers might focus on is addressing emissions from traditional cookstoves and open fires that serve as the primary way that nearly 3 billion people worldwide prepare meals. This form of cooking releases significant amounts of black carbon and accounts for nearly 2 million deaths each year, according to the U.N. Foundation, which is leading a joint effort between the public and private sectors that aims to mobilize $250 million in funding through the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

Mario J. Molina, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry who is on the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology, said curbing pollutants such as black carbon could help keep warming in check as the world moves to cut carbon dioxide.

“Not only would we protect public health, but we would protect a vulnerable part [of the world] which is a critical tipping point,” Molina said. “We can trim the maximum temperature the planet can reach.”

Durwood Zaelke, director of the Washington-based Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, said it was unclear how aggressively the council will pursue this path.

“They’re not a classic regulatory body. Can they take their scientific insight and turn it into political leadership?” Zaelke asked. “Will they do more than study? Will they show leadership?”

On Wednesday, Clinton was greeted by Greenlanders who pressed against an airport gate hoping for a glimpse of her. Crowds also waited outside her hotel in Nuuk, a town of brightly colored aluminum houses and about 15,000 inhabitants. Clinton, bundled up in a red down jacket against the 30-degree temperature, shook hands and posed for photos. “Hello, thanks for coming,” she called to the crowd.

Eilperin contributed from Washington.

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