Arctic nations to fight climate change despite Russia tensions

By Arshad Mohammed IQALUIT, Nunavut (Reuters) - The eight Arctic Council nations pledged on Friday to do more to combat climate change that is shrinking the vast frigid region, with countries trying to put aside disputes over issues like Russia's intervention in Ukraine. Meeting in the Canadian town of Iqaluit, 300 km (200 miles) south of the Arctic Circle, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States pledged to work to address emissions of black carbon and methane. Both are seen as particularly harmful to the Arctic, whose sea ice this year was the smallest in winter since satellite records began in 1979, according to U.S. data. The region is warming at twice the rate of other parts of the globe, which both threatens traditional communities even as it opens up new sea lanes and vast oil and mineral resources. During the meeting, the nations sought to play down their divisions, notably over Russia's March 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine as well as the West's view -- denied by Russia -- that Russian troops support separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia also caused unease in March when it began military exercises across the country, including in the Arctic, involving more than 45,000 troops as well as war planes and submarines. Leona Aglukkaq, the Canadian environment minister and host, did not mention Ukraine during the day's talks but told a closing news conference that she raised it in a private with the Russian natural resources minister, Sergei Donskoi. "I did have a brief discussion ... to state again that we condemn the actions of Russia with Ukraine and that was it," she said, saying she did not expect Russian military exercises to harm work in the Council, which does not deal with security. Donskoi said the Arctic was too important to be affected by outside issues. "There is no room here for confrontation or for fear mongering," he said during the council meetings. At a closing news conference, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he had "very directly" challenged Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a telephone call this week about the presence of Russian military personnel and equipment in Ukraine. "We have to continue to keep the pressure on," Kerry said of maintaining economic sanctions on Russia. However, he said Lavrov, who did not attend the Arctic talks, "made it crystal clear to me that Russia wants the Council to be successful ... and that it’s their intent to cooperate to us on the protection of the environment." The most tangible result of the Council meeting was a fresh nonbinding pledge to do more to fight black carbon and methane. Emitted by diesel engines and wood-fired cooking stoves, black carbon settles on snow and ice, making it retain more warmth and melt faster. Methane is a greenhouse gas that, once released into the atmosphere, also causes the earth to retain heat. The United States, which will chair the council for the next two years, hoped to adopt "an ambitious collective goal on black carbon" by the group's next meeting in 2017, Kerry said. (Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Andrew Hay)