Protecting the Arctic

Written evidence submitted by Professor Klaus Dodds, University of London


The Arctic region, an inhabited space with some 4 million people living north of the Arctic Circle, is undergoing a fundamental state change. Physically, Arctic sea ice is melting as is permafrost and although these changes are varied, there is undeniably a warming trend. This has led many to speculate that the Arctic Ocean in particular will become increasingly accessible to global shipping and resource exploitation, especially fishing and hydrocarbon extraction.

Politically, the Arctic 5 (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States) are increasingly boisterous about their sovereign rights in the Arctic Ocean and mindful of other parties attempting to shape the prevailing geopolitics of the region. The Arctic Council, a soft law intergovernmental organization, is seeking to improve co-operation between Arctic states, indigenous peoples and observers including the EU and China.

This does not mean that the Arctic region is locked into an inevitable geopolitical competition regarding resource access, shipping potential, military advantage and strategic posturing. The most cited 2007 planting of the Russian flag on the bottom of the central Arctic Ocean was not indicative of a new 'Great Game'. The Cold War has not returned to the Arctic and UNCLOS-related establishment of sovereign rights in Arctic Ocean is orderly and peaceful.

The UK needs to develop an Arctic strategy. The UK and the Arctic: The Strategic Gap (RUSI Journal, June 2011) makes the case for a UK Arctic strategy.

Specific Points

1. The UK has a 400 year history of engagement with the Arctic - involving geographical exploration of the Canadian North to undertaking cutting edge scientific research on climate change.

2. The UK, as a sub-Arctic nation, needs to develop a formal cross- departmental Arctic strategy, which outlines key challenges, interests and opportunities in the region and beyond. It also needs to establish and consolidate stake-holders within and beyond Whitehall. Main government departments with Arctic interests are FCO, MOD, DBIS and DECC. FCO established an informal 'Arctic network' to share information with other government departments.

3. UK Arctic interests are broadly characterized as four fold - security, politics, economics, environment, science and popular culture.

4. In security terms, UK is concerned that the Arctic region is not militarized and that Britain has capability to defend 'Northern Flank'. Collaboration with Norway and other NATO Nordic partners considered essential. UK forces participate in Exercise Cold Response in Northern Scandinavia and monitoring Russian Arctic forces considered vital.

5. In political terms, UK holds observer status in the Arctic Council and Barents Euro-Arctic Council. UK's observer status is important in enabling high level access to Arctic states (the A5 plus Iceland, Sweden and Finland) and provides opportunities to input into recent conversations about shipping, oil spill response, search and rescue, scientific investigation, energy and fisheries.

6. In economic terms, UK deeply involved in the Arctic region via shipping, insurance, engineering, hydrocarbon exploitation, fishing and tourism. Companies such as Cairn Energy as well as large multinationals such as BP and Shell have been at the forefront of oil and gas exploration and exploitation. London is a centre for Arctic based activities.

7. In environmental terms, UK weather strongly influenced by Arctic weather systems and migratory flows of animals/birds also connects UK to Arctic.

8. In scientific terms, UK is a major player in Arctic science. UK maintains a scientific station in Svalbard. National Environment Research Council (NERC) and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) announced a major focus on Arctic research as part of a broader Planet Earth focus linking polar regions. UK scientists were major contributors to path- breaking Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.

9. In terms of popular culture, UK retains a strong cultural interest in the Arctic (as recent BBC programme Frozen Planet suggested in terms of popularity and commentary )albeit with strong bi-polar focus.

10. A UK Arctic strategy would help articulate the range and scope of Arctic-based interests and highlight areas where continued commitment is necessary - securing energy supplies from Norway, scientific research into the impact of climate change and pollution, assessing and monitoring Russian Arctic strategies and practices, and understanding commercial and political opportunities to influence developments in the region.

11. UK could commit itself to particular projects - for example in areas of environmental governance and stewardship. One example might to be to press for further regulation of offshore oil and gas activities in the Arctic another might be to use the expertise of the UK Coastguard to develop higher standards regarding search and rescue, safety at sea, fisheries research and marine pollution.

12. UK's strong bilateral relations with Canada and Norway need to be used not only to promote UK interests but also help to mediate between Arctic states and other interested parties especially EU and China. UK as honest broker is one role that might be pursued in and around the Arctic Council.

13. UK needs to commit itself to further scientific and social scientific research dedicated to better understanding the physical and geopolitical changes affecting the Arctic - and ensuring that UK policy makers better understand how the UK is perceived within fora such as the Arctic Council.

14. UK needs to understand that there are 3 political logics affecting the Arctic region at present - security, sovereignty and stewardship.

It needs to ensure that stewardship is the one that is most high profile in its approach to Arctic parties.

7 February 2012

Prepared 24th February 2012