Protecting the Arctic - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The impact of climate change on the Arctic

1.  There is growing evidence that the damaging effects of climate change are being felt strongly in the Arctic. The ice-cap is retreating. In September 2012 it had reached its lowest extent since satellite records began, and new evidence shows that it is also thinning faster than previously thought. The general view that the ice-cap is not at risk of a summer collapse in the next few years may need to be revisited and revised. A collapse not only threatens the unique ecosystems there, but would have damaging ramifications for regional and global climate. (Paragraph 28)

2.  There is a range of views on the rate at which methane is being released in the Arctic as a result of climate warming there, and whether and how soon that might constitute a tipping point. Given its particular potency as a greenhouse gas, however, there is a potentially serious risk for global climate change from any significant methane release in the Arctic. (Paragraph 34)

3.  In the absence of urgent action on climate change, there may be a number of tipping points in climate-driven systems in the Arctic, which threaten to rapidly escalate the danger for the whole planet. A collapse of summer sea-ice, increased methane emissions from thawing permafrost, runaway melting of the Greenland ice-sheet, and a collapse of the thermo-haline circulation, may all be approaching in the Arctic and will have disastrous consequences for global climate and sea levels. These together comprise a wake-up call to reinvigorate efforts to tackle climate change. A lack of consensus on precisely how fast any tipping points are approaching in the Arctic should not be used as an argument for inaction; rather it demonstrates the need for continued and sustained research to underpin further action. The UK makes an essential contribution to Arctic science, and we look to the Government to continue supporting Arctic science as a key component of its work on climate change. (Paragraph 45)

4.  Geo-engineering techniques for the Arctic at present do not offer a credible long-term solution for tackling climate change. Further research is needed to understand how such techniques work and their wider impacts on climate systems. In the meantime, therefore, we remain unconvinced that using 'technical fixes' is the right approach and efforts should not be diverted from tackling the fundamental drivers of global climate change. (Paragraph 50)

5.  The risks to ecosystems from the effects of Arctic warming and potential climate tipping points, together with the additional risks from energy and shipping development, make it imperative that any readily available opportunity to make a difference is grasped. Tackling emissions from shipping is such an opportunity, and the Government must engage positively with the EU's efforts to look at options for doing this. (Paragraph 55)

Oil and gas exploration

6.  Oil companies primarily respond to market supply and demand. The Government's approach in helping to avoid dangerous climate change is to encourage the UK to reduce consumption, not supply, of fossil fuels, through, for example, electricity market reform and the EU Emissions Trading System. We are concerned that there appears to be a lack of strategic thinking and policy coherence within Government on this issue, illustrated by its failure to demonstrate how future oil and gas extraction from the Arctic can be reconciled to commitments to limit temperature rises to 2°C. The Government should seek to resolve this matter. (Paragraph 64)

7.  The development of Citizens Advisory Councils to engage citizens in the oversight of the Arctic oil industry should be part of the Government's Strategy for the Arctic (Paragraph 92)

8.  Drilling is already going ahead in the Arctic and regulatory authorities are approving plans to drill. However, only a small fraction of oil would be recovered in the event of a significant oil spill in the Arctic and it might take decades for wildlife to recover. Given the heightened risks of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic, including a lack of conclusive evidence that oil spill response techniques will work fully effectively in Arctic conditions, we conclude that there should be 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. The risk standard adopted must be 'As Low as Possible' and the Government should work with Arctic states, including through the Arctic Council, to help bring this about.

·  a pan-Arctic oil spill response standard is in place. The UK Government should seek to persuade the Arctic Council to draw on the expertise of other states in its work to develop such a standard.

·  a much higher, preferably unlimited, financial liability regime for oil and gas operations is in place throughout the Arctic. Such a liability regime should require companies operating there to demonstrate that they have adequate funds, financial guarantees or insurance, to meet the costs of responding to an oil spill. The UK Government should seek to advance this through the Arctic Council and the IMO. Consideration should also be given to setting up a liability deposit bond scheme which could be administered by the Arctic Council.

·  an oil and gas industry group is set up to peer-review companies' drilling and spill response plans and operating practices, reporting publicly. The Government should seek, through the Arctic Council, to engage the oil companies operating in the Arctic to set this up.

·  further independent research and testing on oil spill response techniques in Arctic conditions is conducted, including assessing the environmental side-effects of such techniques. Only once response techniques have been independently proven to be as effective as those used for temperate latitudes should drilling be permitted to go ahead. Through the Arctic Council, the Government should seek to persuade Arctic littoral states to carry out and publish the results of such further research and testing.

·  an internationally recognised environmental sanctuary is established in at least part of the Arctic. (Paragraph 106)

Shipping and fisheries

9.  An increase in Arctic shipping is inevitably bringing new opportunities for UK businesses and ports, and that will enable UK authorities to play a regulatory role in future Arctic shipping. The Government should review how it can support relevant sectors of the economy but with a clear focus on meeting the requirements of sustainable development of the Arctic. (Paragraph 111)

10.  There are clear risks from increased shipping to Arctic ecosystems and effective standards must be put in place as soon as possible in readiness for an inevitable increase in the volume of Arctic shipping. The Government should use its influence in the IMO and Arctic Council to:

·  ensure the Polar Code, currently being developed, is robust and provides for environmentally safe navigation through Arctic waters. We are disappointed that the IMO chose to not give evidence to us on this inquiry, which hindered our scrutiny of the IMO's work to develop this Code;

·  speed up the development of the Polar Code by working with other members of the IMO to identify Chapters that could be agreed to a quicker timeframe than the rest of the Code. Although essential to reach international agreement on shipping regulations, the pace of its work is slow;

·  increase the maximum financial liability of ship operators for pollution in the Arctic; and

·  increase the protections afforded to the Arctic under existing IMO shipping regulations, including seeking support to designate the Arctic as a 'Particularly Sensitive Sea Area' within the MARPOL regulations. (Paragraph 120)

11.  The Government should play a full role in developing a new international agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of the marine biological diversity of the Arctic beyond national jurisdictions. (Paragraph 124)

12.  As an observer on the Arctic Council, the Government should also seek to influence Arctic states to regulate their fisheries sustainably. Any bilateral agreements between the UK and other states should seek to ensure that smaller boats, which more readily support sustainable fishing practice, are able to benefit from any quotas agreed. (Paragraph 125)

Governance of the Arctic

13.  We support the need for an internationally recognised environmental sanctuary covering part of the Arctic. The Government should urgently seek to gather support for this within the Arctic Council, and to encourage the Council and UN to begin a dialogue on the scope for this. We see the development of such a Sanctuary as a pre-requisite for further development of the Arctic's natural resources. (Paragraph 139)

14.  We recommend that the Government begin the development of an Arctic Strategy to bring together the UK's diverse interests in the Arctic and engage all stakeholders. Without one there is a risk that government departments may not be working in a cross-cutting way. Such a Strategy should include analysis of the potential impact of climate change on the Arctic and necessary responses , as well as how and where the Government would act to support sustainable development in the Arctic . It should identify potential end-states for the Arctic and how the Government intend to use its influence at the UN and Arctic Council to bring those about, taking account of the limits on the UK's ability to directly drive such changes. In particular, an Arctic Strategy should include:

·  a narrative on how the Rio principles and the outcomes from the Rio+20 Summit will guide the UK's approach to the Arctic;

·  how the Government intends to use its science and research to increase its influence on Arctic matters;

·  how the Government plans to secure action against the pre-conditions we consider should be attached to further drilling in the Arctic;

·  the need for an area of the Arctic to be set aside as a 'sanctuary' and protected from oil and gas development, to be progressed in dialogue with both the Arctic Council and the UN;

·  how the Government will use its influence at the IMO, UN and Arctic Council to help protect the Arctic from the possible impacts of increased international shipping, and how it will support relevant sectors of the UK economy to take advantage of future opportunities in a sustainable way;

·  the Government's commitment to support the sustainable management of Arctic fisheries;

·  consideration of the ideal of a 'wider' Council, convened under the UN, to allow the interests of non-Arctic states to be taken into account in the development and environmental protection of the Arctic, and identification of available levers to bring that about;

·  how the Government will work to develop Citizens Advisory Councils to engage citizens in the oversight of the Arctic oil industry; and

·  opportunities for 'grand bargains' that might be explored with potential observer states, including China, on wider environmental issues.

Such a strategy must be developed (and expressed) in a sensitive way, and with the close engagement of Arctic countries, to avoid misunderstandings which might undermine the UK's influence. It should also be a foundation for the Government to actively engage the public in this agenda. (Paragraph 155)

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Prepared 20 September 2012