Arctic Council: John Kerry steps into Arctic diplomacy

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Sweden

image captionKerry, shown before boarding his plane in Stockholm, held one of the first climate change hearings in the US Senate in the 1980s

Three and half a months into his tenure as US secretary of state, John Kerry is grappling with war in Syria, tensions on the Korean peninsula and other crises. But on Tuesday, he takes a short break to dive into an issue in which he has long been interested - climate change.

Mr Kerry arrived in Stockholm and headed to Kiruna, Sweden's northernmost city, in the province of Lapland, for a meeting of the Arctic Council.

The council, founded in 1996, brings together eight nations with land above the Arctic Circle - Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US.

Mr Kerry, who held one of the first US Senate hearings on climate change as early as 1988 with then-Senator Al Gore, is hoping to put the spotlight on the issue of climate change again, after efforts to make concrete progress faltered during President Barack Obama's first term.

image captionThe US must balance environmentalists' interests with those of shippers and energy companies

Despite a multitude of international crises, Mr Kerry insisted on attending the meeting of the once-obscure council.

Climate change has countries as far away as India also paying attention to the Arctic - and seeking observer status in the council. Melting polar ice is making mineral and oil resources easier to exploit, setting off a scramble for access. The US Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that some 22% of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas deposits were located above the Arctic Circle.

The warming climate also opens shipping routes that were once mostly inaccessible. The northern sea route would cut the distance between Shanghai and Europe by several thousands of miles, saving time and money.

China is courting Nordic countries, signing a trade agreement with Iceland and several commercial agreements with Denmark.

Greenland, a self-governing part of Denmark, is considering awarding mine exploration licenses to companies this year for a $2bn (£1.3bn) project north-east of the capital Nuuk.

Front-row seat

image captionNorway is one of eight Arctic Council members, each of which have territory above the Arctic Circle

One of those companies is London Mining, which would join a Chinese mining company in the project that could supply China with 15 million tonnes of iron ore a year.

China is one of 14 countries that have applied for observer status in the council, along with Japan, South Korea, India and others. Several European countries such as France and the Netherlands are already observers.

Observers do not participate in the decision-making process. But the Arctic's growing geopolitical significance allows countries with even a toehold in the small club - like China - to be closer to the action.

The council will consider the new applications during the Kiruna meeting and possibly come to a decision, which requires consensus. Canada and Russia are opposed, while the Nordic countries are in favour.

"The argument for opening for more observers in the Arctic Council is that they will then be a member of our club," said Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide. "Then the danger of them forming their own club will be smaller."

Countries such as Canada that oppose inviting in more observers fear the voice of indigenous people who live in the Arctic will be diminished.

US wish list

On Friday the White House said the US had not taken a position yet. A senior US official attending the Kiruna meeting said Washington was open to observers and respected the consensus. The official also added that Washington believed China was a responsible applicant.

It is unclear whether the eight members will be able to reach a decision by the end of their meeting in Kiruna, which will also mark the transfer of the council chairmanship from Sweden to Canada for the next two years. The US takes over in 2015.

Last week, the White House unveiled a new Arctic strategy with three policy aims: advancing national security interests, responsibly managing the Arctic ecosystem, and bolstering international relationships.

But the strategy provided little detail about specific issues like drilling or shipping lanes. And with no clear budget, experts said it was a vague wish list.

Arctic policy is sensitive issue for President Obama, who must balance pressure from environmentalists opposed to Arctic drilling with the needs of the oil and gas industry and Republicans who are pushing for more aggressive drilling and mine exploitation.

The council members will also sign an oil-spill preparedness and response treaty.