More concrete solutions for soot in the Arctic needed, says Bellona

Publish date: February 8, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

Ministers of the Artic Council Wednesday concluded a meeting devoted to the effects of black carbon – or soot – accruing on the Arctic icecap, which absorbs solar radiation, causes melting and contributes to the earth’s retention of Greenhouse gasses.

The problem of soot – pushed out by the fossil fuel burning and transport industries, including ships sailing the Northern Sea Route along the polar icecap – has in recently received more recognition as so called short-lived climate changing pollution.

Soot is also distributed across the Arctic by jets, burning wood and forest and tundra fires – the last of which are an ever increasing problem emanating from Russia each summer as increasingly hot and dry seasons foster long burning and geographically enormous forest fires, which emergency service workers there are finding increasing difficult to cope with.

But despite the Arctic Council’s ostensible focus on soot in the Arctic during its two-day meeting on February 5-6 in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden – which currently holds the council’s chairmanship – few concrete and cooperative efforts on how to achieve soot reductions came of the meeting, at least on a public level.

Speaking at the closing press conference Wednesday, Swedish Environmental Minister Lena Ek said the meeting yielded “important progress in discussions on short-lived climate changing air pollution, especially reductions of soot from the Arctic countries.”

“The ministers called for urgent action to reduce the short-lived climate-changing air pollution and an instrument or other agreement to reduce soot emissions from the Arctic states,” she continued, according to the Swedish transcript of her remarks on the Swedish government’s website .

“The main elements of such an instrument were discussed,” she said.

But while Bellona’s Sigurd Enge, who is also a member of the Arctic NGO Forum, was pleased the Arctic Council is taking the soot issue seriously, he was also concerned one or several nations may be preventing the Arctic Council from presenting more concrete proposals on how to tackle the problem.

The eight-member council is comprised of the United States, Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark including Greenland, each of which has a coastline on the Arctic.

The US and Russia, in particular, are open about their designs on the Arctic as a new frontier for oil and gas exploration. And Norway’s Statoil has joined the race with Russia’s state Rosneft oil company in Arctic oil exploration.

The US Geological Survey estimates the Arctic holds some 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered gas.

According to Enge, the ambitions of these nations could hinder the willingness of the Arctic Council as a whole to enact concrete measures to protect the Arctic environment.

“There seems to be a big a significant gap between the good intentions of Sweden’s excellent chairmanship [of the Council] and the result of this week’s meeting,” said Enge.

“Some of the member nations’ Arctic policy is focused more on exploiting oil and gas resources and new shipping routes than on protecting and preventing the Arctic environment from disaster,” he said, adding,  “I’m afraid that Russia and US in particular are more interested in turning the Council into a pillow on which to rest their heads rather than a group that develops internationally binding agreements.”

Black carbon on the rise: Studies

Black carbon aerosols have been known to warm the atmosphere for many years by absorbing sunlight. They also speed the melting of ice and snow. In the Arctic, this process is visible as soot aerosols coat the polar icecap, absorbing rather than reflecting solar radiation, playing a part in the record retreat of the Polar icecap seen in summer 2012.

“New studies show that the soot emissions in the arctic is are a far larger contributor to global warming than recently thought,” said Enge. “That a reduction of soot emission would have an immediate and positive effect should urge the responsible ministers on the Arctic Council to act now.”  

At December’s UN Conference of Parties 18 summit in Doha, 25 nations countries comprising the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) took note of earlier studies and independently agreed to reduce soot, methane and refrigerant gases emitted by their countries.

“Bellona has for many years worked actively to reduce severely damaging short-lived greenhouse gases such as soot, methane and refrigerant gases,” said Bellona senior adviser Svend Søyland of the event at COP18. “The past two years have seen extensive studies of the burning of agricultural waste and forest fires in Russia.”

What these studies are showing is that particles from diesel engines and wood burning could be having twice as much a warming effect as assessed in past estimates.

Scientists say it ranks second only to carbon dioxide as the most important climate-warming agent.

The most recent research on the subject was published in January in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres.

This new study concludes the dark particles are having a warming effect approximately two thirds that of carbon dioxide, and greater than methane.

“The large conclusion is that forcing due to black carbon in the atmosphere is larger,” lead author Sarah Doherty told the BBC.

“The value the [Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Chan] gave in their 4th assessment report in 2007 is half of what we are presenting in this report – it’s a little bit shocking,” said Doherty.

The researchers say black carbon emissions in Europe and North America have been declining due to restrictions on emissions from diesel engines. But they have been growing steadily in the developing world.

However as these type of particles don’t last very long in the atmosphere, cutting their number would have an immediate impact on temperatures.

Black carbon, said the researchers, is identified as being a significant source of rapid warming in the northern United States, Canada, northern Europe and northern Asia. The particles are also said to have an impact on rainfall patterns in the Asian monsoon.

The authors say that while cutting back on soot is important, cutting carbon dioxide emissions is the best way to address climate change in the long term.

Bellona agreed, but says that enacting immediate measures to reduce soot output is a tangible climate contribution every country can make.