Great expectations: United States to lead Arctic Council

Great expectations: United States to lead Arctic Council

Great expectations: United States to lead Arctic Council

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On April 24, at the Ministerial meeting in Iqaluit, Nunavut, the United States will chair the Arctic Council, taking over from Canada. The last time the U.S. held the gavel at the Council — a high-level intergovernmental forum composed of eight nations and six native organizations focused on sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic region — was 2000.

Much has transpired in the Arctic in the time since the U.S. last chaired the Council. Sea ice extent and volume are maintaining their downward trajectories; ship traffic through the Bering Strait has risen substantially (220 transits in 2008; more than 480 transits in 2013); offshore oil, gas and mineral exploration and development are proliferating; and Arctic temperatures continue to climb at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. In short, much needs to be done to protect the vulnerable Arctic landscape, and real leadership will be required.

The U.S., to its credit, has an ambitious agenda staked out for its two-year tenure. It will focus on three thematic pillars: Improving Economic and Living Conditions; Arctic Ocean Safety, Security, and Stewardship; and Addressing Impacts of Climate Change. While specifics, of course, have to be worked out regarding these three focal points, there has been inadequate coverage, to date, on an issue that presents a real and immediate threat to the Arctic: shipping. It should be noted that the soon-to-be finalized Polar Code will enhance safety and environmental protection in the region; yet, it does not go nearly far enough in tackling key environmental issues. These include eliminating the use of toxic heavy fuel oil (or bunker fuel) in the Arctic, as has been done in the Antarctic; strengthening ship-mediated invasive species standards for polar climes; and reducing short-lived climate pollution such as black carbon (see also WWF’s recent edition of the Circle), the second most powerful warming agent next to carbon dioxide.

The U.S. can offer effective leadership on these issues, and, in particular, has the ability to tip the scales on the HFO use topic, which would be a boon to the Arctic environment. In May 2013, the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee deemed the issue premature for resolution, despite outright support for regulation from France, Spain, and Germany and support in principle from various member states, including the United States. Two years later, the substantive risks presented by ships’ use of HFO in the Arctic are still present.


Canadian Coast Guard ships in the Arctic Ocean

A fuel tank rupture and HFO spillage into near pristine Arctic waters would have dire consequences for the area’s wildlife, native subsistence practices and ecology due to its potent cocktail of toxic constituents and persistence. The U.S. should know better in light of its experience with the infamous Exxon Valdez spill, which, while concerning crude oil instead of HFO and occurring in the sub-Arctic, still resulted in massive economic and environmental damage — and a legacy of oil-contaminated stretches along Alaska’s coastline that remains to this day. Switching fuel from the tar-like HFO to a cleaner marine distillate would also reduce harmful air emissions considerably, including black carbon emissions by 30 percent and even up to 80 percent. While man-made emissions of black carbon in the Arctic are largely the responsibility of gas flaring activities, black carbon from Arctic shipping is expected to increase significantly and establish zones wherein the pollutant is concentrated.

The U.S. Arctic Council delegation, in its upcoming role as Council chair, has a tremendous opportunity to push for greater ship regulation in the region. Specifically, the U.S. and other Council members should call upon the IMO to include discussions of environmental provisions, not just safety measures, in the second phase of the Polar Code. A primary objective of the subsequent process ought to be eliminating use of HFO in the Arctic. This goal is absolutely achievable within the two-year stint of the U.S. chair, and provides a substantial risk-reduction benefit to Arctic ecosystems and residents while also reducing black carbon emissions. As the U.S. steers the Council through challenging waters ahead, it should keep in mind that much remains to be done to ensure environmental protection and counter the risks posed by expanded Arctic shipping. The culmination of phase one of the Polar Code in May is just a start — and a modest one at that. A vehicle for enhanced measures exists in the Code’s second phase; all that is needed is a strong, steady hand, vision and will.

Image credit: Jerold Bennett, Flickr, Creative Commons (top); USGS, Flickr, Creative Commons

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