IQALUIT, Canada — The United States, Russia and other Arctic countries looked past Ukraine's civil war and other tensions Friday, vowing to cooperate on preventing oil spills near the North Pole and combating climate change in a region warming faster than any other.
Assuming the chair of the eight-nation Arctic Council, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said nations needed to significantly reduce black carbon and methane, short-lived greenhouse gases that are particularly potent sources of the Arctic's warming. He said firm goals on emissions reductions would be set at the next meeting of ministers in 2017 in Alaska. "These pollutants are a threat to everybody," Kerry said.
The announcement, while modest, added to the Obama administration's expanding environmental agenda over its final years, which already includes cutting pollutants from U.S. power plants and agreeing last year with China to cut carbon emissions. The U.S. and other governments will take another stab at a comprehensive climate change strategy later this year in Paris.
The Arctic's rising sea levels could have drastic effects around the world, changing coastlines and inundating small islands, and potentially hitting low-lying areas from Bangladesh to Florida the hardest. While Kerry and other delegates noted the vast opportunities that come with receding icecaps, they all spoke of the need for clean and sustainable development that serves the interests of the region's inhabitants.
Not all was rosy at this biennial gathering of a body that prides itself in avoiding political controversy to focus on avoiding ecological, humanitarian and even military crises as the warming Arctic offers new shipping routes, fishing grounds and oil and gas drilling opportunities.
On the eve of Friday's gathering, Canada's environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, met with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Donskoi, and voiced displeasure with Moscow's ongoing military activity in neighboring Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov didn't attend the meeting, citing a prior commitment — an absence lamented publicly by one Alaskan Native representative.
"It is important that we speak openly about the tensions between Russia and the West," Michael Stickman said.
But Kerry and Lavrov spoke by telephone Wednesday on the Arctic Council and other matters. Addressing Ukraine, the top American diplomat pressed Russia to remove its forces from the east of the country amid American claims that Russia is upping deliveries of heavy weaponry and training to Ukrainian separatists.
Russia says it has no troops in Ukraine, but the U.S., Ukraine and European governments say the evidence over a year of fighting is overwhelming. The State Department has even referred recently to the rebels as "combined Russian-separatist" forces.
Concerns with Russia's motives encompass the Arctic, too, an area that holds trillions of dollars' worth of oil and gas reserves and which Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin recently termed "Russia's Mecca."
Just last month, Russia launched military maneuvers with tens of thousands of servicemen, dozens of ships and submarines, and more than 100 aircraft to check the nation's readiness to protect its northern frontier.
As the planet warms and opens up new chances to tap the Arctic's vast riches, many have warned of a new battleground for resources emerging in the 21st century.
Still, ministers from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. stressed the positives as they met in the northern Canadian town of Iqaluit beside a frozen Frobisher Bay.
"It is in no one's interests to let problems elsewhere impact cooperation in the Arctic," said Erkki Tuomioja, Finland's foreign minister.
"There is no room here for confrontation or fear-mongering," Russia's Donskoi said. His government hailed a plan to prevent an oil disaster in the Arctic Sea, the cleanup of which would be a logistical nightmare.
And the United States, which sets the Council's agenda for the next two years, presented an agreement by members to address black carbon, or soot, which is emitted by wood-burning cookstoves and diesel fuels. Strategies for doing so include reducing gas flaring during oil exploration.