By Environment Correspondent Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China, India, Singapore and other countries far from the Arctic Circle could be part of a new global forum to widen the discussion about the fate of the planet's Far North, Iceland President Olafur Grimsson said on Monday.
The non-profit forum, Arctic Circle, will hold its first meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, in October.
Such a gathering is needed, Grimsson said, because, while most countries have a stake in the melting of Arctic ice, only eight - Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States - are members of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental group set up in 1996.
Some non-Arctic countries can observe the deliberations, but they have no formal voice on the Council about sustainable development and environmental protection in the region.
The Icelandic leader said he had discussions about the Arctic this year with officials from China, India and Singapore. The first agenda item of these discussions was when these countries would get a seat on the Arctic Council.
The Arctic Circle forum will be "an open, democratic tent where everybody who wants to participate will actually be welcome," Grimsson said at an event at the National Press Club.
He said concerned citizens, representatives of non-governmental organizations, scientists, researchers can join governments and corporations to be part of this discussion.
And while it may take a while for the Arctic Council to decide which countries might become permanent observers at its meetings, these same countries can send representatives to the Arctic Circle to make the case for inclusion.
He also mentioned that China and Iceland announced a new free trade agreement on Monday.
Arctic sea ice is a key indicator of climate change and a powerful global weather-maker. Last year, Arctic sea ice melted to its lowest levels on record, authorities have said.
Besides making global sea levels rise and influencing world weather, the ice melt means new water routes are opening between Europe, Asia and North America, a trend that will have a profound impact on global shipping.
Last year, as summer sea ice shrank, the first Chinese icebreaker made the trip from Shanghai to Iceland via the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast.
By mid-century, the quickest way to get goods from Asia to the U.S. East Coast might well be right over the North Pole, according to a University of California-Los Angeles study.
(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko. Editing by Andre Grenon)