Thursday, June 20, 2013

Arctic Council: John Kerry steps into Arctic diplomacy

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.

John Kerry

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.

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.

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. More