On May 12, 2011, Secretary Clinton joined representatives of the other Arctic Council countries in expressing concern about profound climate change in the Arctic. Secretary Clinton urged her colleagues to take actions to reduce pollutants that contribute to global climate change and that have particularly strong impacts in the Arctic.
The Secretary’s expression of concern follows the release of a report commissioned by the Arctic Council on pollutants called short-lived climate forcers (SLCFs). SLCFs are substances like soot (more technically known as black carbon) and methane that persist in the environment for a relatively short period of time. Black carbon is generated by fossil fuel burning, including residential and industrial coal combustion and diesel fuel combustion by vehicles and ships, and by agricultural burning and forest fires. The Arctic Council’s report found that, while black carbon is suspended in the atmosphere, it absorbs sunlight and contributes to atmospheric warming. When it settles onto otherwise reflective surfaces like Arctic snow and ice, black carbon absorbs solar heat and increases the rate of melting, significantly speeding ice loss in the Arctic. Methane, generated through natural gas leakage and agricultural practices, is a greenhouse gas that traps solar heat in the atmosphere. The Arctic Council’s SLCF report found that reducing levels of black carbon and methane offers a unique avenue to slow the rapid pace of Arctic climate change over the coming decades.
At the May 12 Ministerial, the SLCFs Task Force reported that there is compelling evidence that the Arctic is experiencing significant change, warming more than other parts of the world, as seen in both increasing average regional temperatures and melting snow and sea ice. Reducing emissions of SLCFs can help slow the rate of Arctic climatic change in a relatively short period of time. Secretary Clinton encouraged countries globally to take actions commensurate with the seriousness of the findings in the SLCF report.
SLCFs differ from greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Black carbon remains in the air for only days to weeks and methane remains airborne for roughly a decade. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, the most important greenhouse gas emitted by human activities, affects the climate for centuries or longer. SLCFs, however, have a multiplier effect on climate change by heating the atmosphere and, for black carbon, by absorbing sunlight when deposited on ice and snow. Therefore reducing SLCFs offers unique opportunities to slow the rapid pace of Arctic climate change over the coming decades.
The United States and Norway co-chaired an Arctic Council task force to develop climate-based black carbon mitigation options. On May 12, 2011, the task force issued a recommendation that the Arctic Council nations consider specific mitigation options for the transportation, residential, open burning, and shipping sectors, and periodically share information on progress in reducing their black carbon emissions.
In the United States, black carbon is regulated as a component of particulate matter through diesel engine and ambient air quality standards. The United States has also already taken steps to reduce methane emissions, such as through the U.S.-coordinated Global Methane Initiative.
In addition to the work of the Arctic Council on black carbon and methane, the United States is taking action domestically and urging international action on another SLCF: hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). In the United States, our domestic efforts have greatly reduced U.S. HFC emissions. The United States is also working with Canada and Mexico in an effort to amend the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFC-use.
The Progress Report and Recommendations for Ministers from the Arctic Council's Task Force on Short-Lived Climate Forcers can be found here: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/164926.pdf