Science & Environment

China joins Arctic Council but a decision on the EU is deferred

Image caption Environmental changes all across the Arctic are driving up global interest in the region

China is one of a number of countries that has gained permanent observer status on the Arctic Council.

At a meeting in Sweden, the eight members of the Council accepted India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

However following dissent from Canada, a decision on the EU's application has been deferred.

The permanent observers have no decision making powers.

The opening up of the Arctic to shipping and oil and gas exploitation has fuelled worldwide interest in the region.

With a changing climate allowing ships to travel more cheaply and quickly across the Northern route, Asian countries with ship building industries are particularly interested in closer links to the region and the Council.

Talking shop

The Arctic Council was set up in the 1990s and has been mainly concerned with environmental matters including climate change and pollution, both of which are being felt more heavily in the Northern regions.

It has eight permanent members made up of the five coastal Arctic countries, Norway, Russia, Canada, US and Denmark - it also includes three other non coastal members, Finland, Iceland and Sweden.

It has limited powers, issuing non binding protocols on member states - but as the ice recedes and the wider exploitation of the region becomes possible, the rest of world has taken notice and wants to be involved.

Already six European countries are permanent observers. Now the Council has accepted some of the world's most important emerging powers into what has been dubbed the "coldrush club", a name that reflects the opportunities many see for the exploitation of oil and gas resources in the region.

Up to 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves, and 30 percent of undiscovered gas deposits are said to lie above the Arctic Circle.

The new observers will have no voting rights and must also confirm they will not challenge the ownership of the five Arctic coastal states.

The meeting in Kiruna, Sweden also agreed on a new manual that will govern the activities and roles of the observers. They will not be able to directly raise issues but will have to bring them forward through one of the eight core members.

But the Council was unable to agree on the application from the European Union. It is believed that Canada, which has now assumed the chairmanship of the Council was strongly opposed to the EU getting a permanent observer seat.

Image caption The oil and gas potential of the region is huge with almost a third of the world's undiscovered gas deposits

There have been ongoing disputes between the two over an EU ban on seal fur and other products. The EU is also poised to restrict imports of oil produced in the Alberta tar sands.

The Council said that the application of the EU for observer status was received affirmatively, but it deferred a final decision until the concerns of members are resolved. It is believed that negotiations are now ongoing over the seal fur issue between the Council and the European Commission.

The influx of new permanent observers has been cautiously welcomed by environmental campaigners.

"There are lots of things going on up here that are genuinely of legitimate concern to the rest of the world," Ruth Davis from Greenpeace told BBC News.

"As ministers said what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic, so it's a good step to make the Arctic Council open to new voices. But really the question is are the voices of those who are on the receiving end of rapid environmental change in the Arctic, are they being heard in the council?"

Spill plans

The growing interest of countries like China and India in joining the Arctic Council reflects the changing nature of the body say observers. Another decision that reflects the beefing up of the Council's activities was the acceptance of an oil spill preparation plan.

According to the Council this legally-binding agreement will substantially improve procedures for dealing with oil leaks in the Arctic.

Speaking during the meeting, US Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the idea.

"As the US was reminded painfully in the Gulf of Mexico, we need strong partnerships and shared operational guidelines before a disaster occurs - We need to prevent disasters happening in the first place," he said.

Leiv Lunde is the director of the and a former special envoy on energy and climate change at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He says that the role of Council in the world is growing significantly.

"The Arctic Council has until now been an organisation for the environmental sectors of government - but you are moving into an area where there are bound to be tradeoffs and big fights about what will going to happen," he said.

"We are going from symbolic postures to real politics and that's a different game."

The Council meeting also published a new scientific report from the Stockholm Environment Institute on the resilience of the Arctic. It suggests that rapid and even abrupt changes are occurring on multiple fronts across the region, raising the risk of crossing thresholds that would cause irreversible changes.

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