A wildfire burns in the High Level Forest Area on May 21, 2019 near the town of High Level, Alberta, Canada. The fire is also having an impact on Canada’s Northwest Territories. Cooperation on wildfire issues in the North are among the Arctic Council expert group recommendations for mitigating black carbon emissions. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Reuters)

Better wildfire management would help reduce black carbon pollution say Arctic experts

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Better wildfire management and improved agricultural practices have been added to a list of black carbon and methane mitigation recommendations by a group of international experts.

The Arctic Council Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane, which includes experts from all over the world including Canada, added the two new recommendations, along with previous recommendations in four other areas: diesel-powered sources, the oil and gas sector, residential combustion and solid waste disposal, in its 2019 report Summary of Progress and Recommendations.

“The expert group certainly concluded that’s there’s potential for making more ambitious targets ,” said Mikael Hilden, the former chair of the Arctic Council Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane under Finland’s 2017-2019 chairmanship.

“Black carbon can, of course, not be completely excluded,” Hilden said in telephone interview from Helsinki.  “As long as humans burn something, there will be some emissions of black carbon. But it can be contained, it can be reduced significantly. That’s the important message.”

Gas flares, a producer of black carbon, go off at a an unnamed liquefied natural gas plant on Sakhalin island in Russia’s Far East. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

Recommendations around agricultural policies includes finding ways to reduce agricultural burning as well as recommendations to “…promote food consumption patterns that utilize Arctic food chains sustainability and efficiently, support the preservation of carbon sinks, and minimize life-cycle emissions of methane,” says the report.

It also recommends that work be done to reduce emissions of enteric methane under Arctic conditions, in co-operation with relevant organizations. Enteric methane is caused when organic matter breaks down.

Wildfire management

Wildfires are becoming a increasing concern in the North because of how they contribute to black carbon emissions.

In summer 2018, fires raged in circumpolar countries like Sweden, Finland, Russia and Norway, including in their respective Arctic regions.

The report’s recommendations stress the importance of collaboration between Arctic countries on wildfire management, suppression and monitoring, and call for the need to  “… maintain international mutual aid and resource exchange arrangements” and regionally specific public education programs on wildfire prevention and safety.

A wildfire burning approximately 20km southwest of Fort St. James, in the Canadian province of British Columbia on Wednesday August 15, 2018. Northern nations should do more to share best practices on wildfire management and prevention, says a new report from an Arctic Council expert group. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

“Locally, there’s lots of things to be learned across the arctic countries,” Hilden said. The situation is of course vastly different in say, Canada, compared with Finland, where we have a dense network of forest roads, and therefore, extinguishing forest fires is easier and more manageable, but that doesn’t mean of course that it would be a complete one off and that there couldn’t’ be things that the Arctic countries couldn’t learn from each other.

“There should be more exchange on this including the prepardness, the information contained, in order to reduce unnecessary fires and doing the managment in such a way that the wildfires can be managed to the extent that they are manageable.”

Dangerous to health and environment

Black carbon and methane emissions are a serious concern for the world’s circumpolar countries because of this form of pollution’s role in warming the atmosphere. When black carbon is deposited on ice and snow, it absorbs heat, instead of reflecting heat from these surfaces, contributing to global warming.

After carbon dioxide, it’s the second biggest contributor to warming.

Black carbon is made up of fine matter produced by incomplete combustion of carbon-based fuels. It can be emitted by everything from diesel engines to forest fires.

Because black carbon particles are so small, they can be inhaled and have also been linked to respiratory and circulatory problems in humans.

Expert group established under Canadian chairmanship

The Arctic Council is an international forum made up of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States; and six Arctic Indigenous groups; the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Saami Council.

The council was established in 1996 to work on sustainable development and environmental protection in the North.

The Arctic Council  adopted the “Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions Reductions: An Arctic Council Framework for Action” in 2015 during Canada’s stint as chair after it was decided reducing this type of pollution should be a priority for Arctic nations. (The forum’s chairmanship rotates between member states every two-years. Iceland currently holds the Arctic Council’s rotating chairmanship until 2021.)

Feature Interview

“The U.S. did not want to associate themselves with the collective goal, but at the same time, the U.S. is stressing very much that (that) doesn’t mean they wouldn’t work in order to reduce emissions … which is kind of a funny position,” says Mikael Hilden. “All the other Arctic Countries, including Russia I should add, wanted to have this collective goal as a point of reference.” (Kristina Baer/Arctic Council Secretariat)

For more on black carbon, the U.S. refusal to commit to common reduction goals and the importance of international cooperation on climate and pollution issues, listen to our Eye on the Arctic conversation with Mikael Hilden, former chair of the Arctic Council expert group on black carbon and methane during Finland’s 2017-2019 Arctic Council chairmanship:

The establishment of an Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane was established to help implement the framework’s commitments to reduce black carbon, recommend collective goals for black carbon reduction and to submit a summary of progress and recommendations every two years for the Arctic Council ministerial meetings.

Tweaks to the original recommendations in this year’s report were done in several categories, and include things like highlighting the importance of reducing not just diesel engine emissions but stationary diesel emissions  as well.

“Small power plants, across the Arctic in particular, is a special Arctic issue  that needs addressing in small communities,” Hilden said.

Hilden says he hopes the report and recommendations help rally Arctic regions and the international community to make a communal effort to tackle this dangerous pollution.

“The important thing to recognize is that this is a long-term process where one takes steps,” Hilden said. “But those steps can reduce emissions significantly over the time and that is the message that we hand over to the Icelandic chair who will take the work forward to the next report in two years time.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Wildfire in Northern Canada: railway bridge burns, road link between Alberta and Northwest Territories closed, CBC News

Finland: Arctic Council experts tackle black carbon risk posed by wildfires, Eye on the Arctic

Russia: U.S., Russia thwarting black carbon reduction efforts in Arctic, says Finland, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Inuit from Alaska, Canada, Greenland & Russia condemn U.S. torpedoing of Arctic Council declaration, Radio Canada International

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