Blog: Will COP21 turn down heat on Arctic?

The Greenland Ice Sheet melts out partly through supraglacial rivers that slowly drain it. August 2014. (Mia Bennett)
The Greenland Ice Sheet melts out partly through supraglacial rivers that slowly drain it. August 2014. (Mia Bennett)
The world’s leaders are meeting in Paris this week for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, generally known as COP21.

In the eyes of many, this is the make-it-or-break-it moment for action on climate change. If we don’t act now, it’s believed, then the world will barrel full steam ahead to a planet that’s at least 2ºC warmer on average. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon intoned, “A political moment like this may not come again…We have never faced such a test. But neither have we encountered such great opportunity.” But climate activist and journalist Bill McKibben offered a more cynical take on the meeting. Even if world leaders manage to reach an agreement, he lamented in an interview, “It won’t be enough…we’ll probably be on a path that heats up about 3.5ºC instead of five degrees.”

The Arctic, of course, will warm up even more than the rest of the world due to the polar amplification effect, in which global increases in temperature are higher at the poles than at the equator. Arctic indigenous peoples have already felt this effect, while scientists have detected it. The Inuit Circumpolar Council’s position paper for COP 21 notes, “The rate of change in the Arctic environment continues to be an increasing challenge for Inuit around the circumpolar Arctic.” And as this NASA heat map reveals, from 2000-2009, the Arctic experienced greater temperature increases relative to 1950-1981 than the more middle latitudes.

Victims or culprits?

The human suffering taking place in the Arctic due to climate change has prompted many in the region to blame countries outside the region as climate culprits. Meanwhile, a discourse of victimization pervades much Western reporting on the Arctic. In a fantastic piece published today by The Arctic Institute, Victoria Herrmann references President Barack Obama’s comments about the villages falling away into the sea in Alaska, noting that his statements “highlight the blunt and difficult reality of Arctic climate victims – they all live in developed nations.”

The Arctic’s four million inhabitants, however, are more than just victims. First, as Hermmann points out, they can and do take the initiative to adapt and prepare for a different future, just as the region’s indigenous peoples have done for thousands of years.

Second, industries in the Arctic, which often (but not always) employ and are supported by locals, are also responsible for the region’s warming. In a study published two days ago in Nature Climate Change, researchers from Norway, Canada, Sweden, and the U.S. found that while emissions from Asian countries constitute the largest single contributor to Arctic warming, gas flaring emissions in Russia and forest fires and gas flaring emissions in the Nordic countries are the second two biggest contributors.

The Asian countries thus bear in absolute terms the biggest responsibility for Arctic warming. But in relative terms, Asian emissions are less potent than those in Russia and the Nordic countries. In other words, one unit of black carbon or organic carbon emitted by East and South Asian countries (including China, India, Japan, Korea, and Indonesia, among others) exerts only 25% of the impact on Arctic warming that the same emission has when coming from the Nordic countries and only 13% of the impact when coming from Russia.

Flaring gas, melting the North

These findings mean that although Arctic countries can claim that they are victims of climate change brought about by the rest of the world, their own activities have a disproportionately greater impact on their environment. Crucially, the extremely wasteful activity of gas flaring appears to be most responsible for Arctic warming.

Gas flaring occurs when the operator decides that it is cheaper to burn off the methane and other gases produced by its oil wells than to transport it elsewhere for sale. Given the lack of transportation infrastructure in much of the Arctic, companies often turn to flaring to get rid of excess gas, as it is a cheaper and more feasible option.

SkyTruth uses satellite imagery of the Earth at night to build a compelling visualization of global gas flaring updated daily. Yesterday, on December 1, 2015, gas flares were detected across the Arctic in Alaska’s North Slope, at the Melkøya LNG plant in northern Norway, and in much of northern Russia, including at the relatively new offshorePrirazlomnaya field.  If gas flaring is the activity most directly responsible for Arctic warming, then the case for a moratorium on Arctic offshore oil drilling, which would almost inevitably require more of this polluting practice, is stronger than ever.

Asia: Cooking up an Arctic fire

While Arctic nations are the most influential drivers of regional warming pound-for-pound, Asian nations are the absolute biggest contributors to the problem. Consequently, the authors of the Nature Climate Change study conclude that the largest contribution by volume to reducing Arctic warming would come from “an improved domestic heating and cooking sector in Asia and in the rest of the world.” The millions of coal- and wood-burning stoves and heaters across Asia, from Delhi to Jakarta, are melting the Arctic. It is almost the reverse of the emissions problem within the Arctic where there are a few key, highly polluting point sources that can be pinpointed from space. Targeting the Asian emissions problem is much more difficult because it requires shifts in the behavior and practices of millions of individuals rather than a select few gas-flaring corporations.

Chicken for sale at a market in New Delhi, India. Emissions from cooking and heating in Asia are the largest contributor by volume to Arctic warming. September 2013. (Mia Bennett)
Chicken for sale at a market in New Delhi, India. Emissions from cooking and heating in Asia are the largest contributor by volume to Arctic warming. September 2013. (Mia Bennett)
COP 21 and the Arctic

The researchers behind the Nature Climate Change paper also determine that even if the world were able to significantly cut emissions and keep the global average temperature rise below 2ºC (referred to as RCP2.6) instead of continuing on its current trajectory without any alterations to emissions (RCP8.5, in which the average global temperature would rise by 4ºC by 2100), the resultant reduction in Arctic warming would be minimal.

The policy implications are thus clear. Regardless of whether a positive or negative outcome is reached in Paris at COP 21, it will not dramatically affect the Arctic. Instead, reductions in emissions have to start first and foremost in the Arctic – ideally by reducing gas flaring in the short term, and in the long term, building a regional economy less dependent on oil and gas. Second, mitigation of Arctic climate change requires changes in Asia – an inter-regional relationship which has become ever more obvious over the past few years. Asian interest in the Arctic is no longer paradoxical; it’s in fact imperative for the region’s future.

Fortunately, the Asian states are active contributors to the Arctic Council. China, Japan, Korea, India, and Singapore are all observers in the body, the region’s premier intergovernmental organization. Asian states should continue to jointly research Arctic climate change, which they have repeatedly claimed will affect them, too. They should also become more involved in Arctic Council Task Forces such as the one on black carbon and methane, for which Korea has attended a meeting.

Yet the Asian countries should also realize that they will not fully come to grips with Arctic climate change unless they take a hard look at how their own citizens’ activities are warming the world’s North. The ICC position paper calls for “investing in Arctic, Indigenous, and remote communities and developing renewable energy options,” but it’s also clear that this needs to happen in Asia, too, so that dirty kitchen stoves and heaters can be replaced with cleaner options.

And for their part, Arctic countries must realize that reducing emissions begins at home on the region’s heavily polluting oil platforms and gas flaring stacks – not in Paris.

Arctic climate change: Blame it on the noodles. Photo: Tokyo, Japan. March 2014. (Mia Bennett)
Arctic climate change: Blame it on the noodles. Photo: Tokyo, Japan. March 2014. (Mia Bennett)

This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.


Related stories from around the North:

Canada: COP21 – View from Nunavut, Canada, Eye on the Arctic

Finland:  Finland at COP21: ‘Small steps will no longer do’, Yle News

Germany:  Energy giant sued for climate change, Deutsche Welle

Norway:  Arctic residents in hot water, Deutsche Welle’s Iceblogger

Sweden:  Swedish PM calls for ‘green industrial revolution’, Radio Sweden

United States:  Cleaner atmosphere means more Arctic ice melt: study, Alaska Dispatch News


Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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