Protecting the Arctic - Environmental Audit Committee Contents


The damaging effects of climate change are being felt strongly in the Arctic. It is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet. The speed at which the ice-cap is retreating has increased and new data points to it thinning faster than previously thought. In September 2012 it reached its lowest extent to date and the previously held general view that the ice-cap is not at risk of a summer collapse in the next few years needs to be re-examined and if necessary revised. We will consider holding a further evidence session once there has been time for proper analysis of the implications of the extent of summer ice melt this year. A total collapse would not only lead to further warming of the Arctic, but would be disastrous for its unique ecosystem and wildlife, and may have damaging ramifications for regional and global climate. There are also a number of other tipping points in climate-driven systems in the Arctic that may be approaching with potentially disastrous consequences, such as increased methane emissions from thawing permafrost, runaway melting of the Greenland Ice-sheet and a collapse of the thermo-haline circulation of the Atlantic. These together comprise a wake-up call to reinvigorate efforts to tackle climate change. Although a reduction in emissions will not prevent a significant loss of sea-ice, it may allow time for ecosystems to adapt, and is necessary to limit further global warming and avoid more severe effects in the Arctic and across the globe.

Ironically, greater exploitation of the Arctic's oil and gas resources is becoming a reality as fossil fuel-driven global warming forces the retreat of the ice-cap. Arctic oil and gas would not be needed in a future that avoided dangerous climate change as there are already more proven fossil fuel reserves than can be burnt unabated whilst keeping to commitments to limit global temperature. The heightened risks when drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic are further exacerbated by the Arctic being one of the least understood places on Earth and highly sensitive to environmental damage. In the event of an oil spill, past history shows that only a small percentage of oil is ever going to be recovered, and the oil spill response techniques that are available have not yet been conclusively proven to work fully effectively in Arctic conditions. Given the risks when drilling in the Arctic, and the fact that operators do not have to constrain risks to an 'as low as possible' standard, we call for a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic until:

·  the regulatory regimes of all Arctic states impose the highest available environmental standards, and require the best available and safest technology to be used for all components of drilling;

·  a pan-Arctic oil spill response standard is in place;

·  a much higher, preferably unlimited, financial liability regime for oil and gas operations;

·  an oil and gas industry group is set up to peer-review companies' drilling and spill response plans and operating practices, reporting publicly;

·  further independent research and testing on oil spill response techniques in Arctic conditions is conducted, including an assessment of their environmental side-effects; and

·  an internationally recognised environmental sanctuary is established in at least part of the Arctic.

Exploitation of other natural resources such as minerals and fisheries, and the establishment of new major global shipping routes, are also in prospect as a result of climate change. Arctic and non-Arctic states must work together to ensure that any new fisheries are managed sustainably and that effective standards for environmentally-safe navigation through Arctic waters are in place as soon as possible.

The Arctic is seen as a politically stable region and an orderly process to settle claims of who owns the resources of the continental shelves is ongoing. The Arctic Council is a key means of cooperation between the eight Arctic states and other observer states, including the UK. The UK could increase its influence on Arctic matters in a number of ways, including offering to broker the relationship between Arctic Council members and others, and using UK Arctic science and research as a basis for enhanced cooperation on environmental protection. All Arctic states have developed their own Arctic Strategies and the UK Government should also do so to bring together the UK's diverse interests in the Arctic and engage all stakeholders. Such a Strategy should set out how the Government plans to implement the recommendations we make in this report, including securing a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic until the preconditions we list above have been implemented.

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Prepared 20 September 2012