Strong U.S. Leadership Can Deliver on Black Carbon Reductions in the Arctic

When the U.S. assumes the chair of the Arctic Council this Friday, it will have an extraordinary opportunity to lead on reducing emissions of black carbon and methane.

melting glacier
Black carbon warms twice over Arctic snow and ice—first in the atmosphere, absorbing incoming sunlight, and then again when it settles on ice and snow, accelerating melting. (Michael Zysman / Shutterstock)

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When the United States assumes the chair of the Arctic Council this Friday, April 24th, it will have an extraordinary opportunity to lead on an issue that is high on President Obama’s climate agenda—reducing emissions of the climate pollutants black carbon and methane to slow the rapid warming and ice melt in the Arctic.  When foreign ministers of the council gather in Iqaluit this week, they will for the first time collectively tackle climate change in the region by adopting the landmark Framework for Action on Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions Reductions. The U.S. is the first nation up as chair to lead the region in delivering on the framework’s promise of real emissions reductions. 

The Arctic is warming at more than twice the global average, threatening the iconic cultures, wildlife and landscapes of the region and low-lying and coastal communities around the world.  While CO2 emissions are the primary cause of Arctic warming—and ambitious emissions reductions our primary challenge—the 100-plus-year atmospheric lifetime of CO2 means that reductions today will not slow Arctic warming in the coming decades. But black carbon and methane are short-lived climate pollutants, staying in the atmosphere for only days or a few years, so reducing them brings near-immediate climate benefit. 

Reductions of black carbon, or soot from diesel engines and gas flaring among other sources, are particularly critical the Arctic.  Here’s why:

  • Black carbon warms twice over Arctic snow and ice—first in the atmosphere, absorbing incoming sunlight, and then again when it settles on ice and snow, accelerating melting.
  • Emissions from in and near the Arctic are the priorities for reduction because they have they are more likely to settle onto Arctic ice and accelerate melting. The potential Arctic climate benefits are significant—reducing black carbon and methane emissions could slow projected warming in the Arctic by about  0.7°C in 2040

The Framework for Action is a critical step forward. While the framework is not technically binding under international law, it is a high level, actionable political commitment by Arctic states that recognizes their heightened responsibility to reduce emissions from within and near the region that have a greater warming impact.  And crucially, the framework includes the major operational elements of effective international agreements: reporting of national emissions inventories and national actions to reduce emissions; setting of an ambitious, aspirational regional emissions reduction goal for black carbon; and establishing an ongoing expert group to measure regional emissions and identify conclusions and recommendations to further enhance reductions in the future.

I was privileged to represent the Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC) at the task force that negotiated the Framework for Action. The AAC is one of six indigenous organizations that were granted a special observer status at the council when it was formed. These organizations, known as “Permanent Participants,” have full voice to participate in negotiations and deliberations on a par with sovereign states, although no vote at the end of the day. So the AAC can negotiate head on with Arctic countries around the table advocating for a strong agreements and effective implementation.

Earthjustice’s relationship with the AAC started four years ago. It asked us to draft a petition to the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights asserting that black carbon emissions reductions were necessary to safeguard the human rights of Athabaskan communities who were being undermined by accelerated Arctic warming and melting.

Athabaskan communities stretch from Alaska through the Yukon to the Northwest Territories and are all experiencing the often devastating effects of accelerated Arctic warming on a daily basis. We interviewed dozens of Athabaskan leaders and elders for the petition. The observations that they shared with me were human accounts of the grim scientific headlines. And eerily affecting/poetic/moving….

  • The weather changes so fast… in the wintertime it can be 50 below one week and 50 above the next.  When I was in grade school it used to be 40-60 below for two months straight, no breaks (AAC international chair Michael Stickman of Nulato, Alaska)
  • Our winters are not as cold as they used to be.  We used to have 65 below and now it’s very rarely we get 30, 40 below. Sometimes even in December we get a little rain. (Mae Andre of Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories)
  • I notice the depletion of animals more and more…and that we have more trees dying off. (Grand Chief Ruth Massie of Lake Lebarge, Yukon)
  • I notice more changes in the landscape, more permafrost melt. Last summer we were walking on the mountain and you could see that a whole area had slid, exposing permafrost melt.  (Cindy Dickson of Old Crow, Yukon; Executive Director of the Arctic Athabaskan Council)

As I traveled to council meetings on the framework around the Arctic basin, from Whitehorse, Canada, to Stockholm to Helsinki and Iqaluit and finally to Tromsoe, Norway, I was struck by the beauty and fragility of the region, and the strength, resilience and determination of northern communities. The voices of the Athabaskan elders and leaders echoed in my mind at each meeting. In the end, the framework is less than we would have hoped for, but more than many expected. Most importantly, the framework sets in place next steps that give the United States, as the first chair of the Arctic Council to implement to oversee its implementation, an exciting opportunity to help the region deliver real emissions reductions and set a precedent on collective Arctic action on climate mitigation. That would indeed be a fitting legacy, for this administration, for Athabaskan leaders and elders that filed the petition, and for our children and grandchildren.  

*To read more about Earthjustice’s work on the Arctic Council, please read this piece by Earthjustice strategic advisor Buck Parker, who has followed the Arctic Council since 2009. 

Part of the International program, Erika's work focuses on climate change, at international negotiations and with U.N. Environment Programme and regional bodies like the Arctic Council to reduce emissions of atmospheric pollutants.

The International Program partners with organizations and communities around the world to establish, strengthen, and enforce national and international legal protections for the environment and public health.