The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and is both the site and source of some of the world’s greatest environmental changes. Rising temperatures have caused an acceleration of sea ice melt, and scientists predict that as early as the 2050s the Arctic could be seasonally sea ice free in summer. The Arctic Ocean is undergoing profound changes, such as acidification and “Atlantification”, which threaten biodiversity and weather patterns. Evidence suggests that plastic pollution is now widespread in the Arctic, with the risk that 1,000 billion plastic particles currently frozen in sea ice could flow into the ocean if the ice melts. A study suggests that plastic litter on beaches in the remote Svalbard Archipelago is of a similar quantity to densely populated areas.
The environmental change in the Arctic is a global concern and a global responsibility. People living in the changing Arctic have not contributed to carbon emissions anything like as much the rest of the globe and yet their traditional ways of life are being disrupted by melting of transport networks across the sea ice, increasingly hazardous hunting grounds and an influx of commercial shipping. The challenges facing the Arctic are likely to have repercussions for climate systems around the world. The UK experienced the effect this year during the “Beast from the East”, caused by a weakening of the polar vortex.
The eight sovereign Arctic states form the Arctic Council. While the UK is not an Arctic state, it is a near-Arctic neighbour. The UK’s weather system is profoundly affected by changes in the Arctic’s climate and sea currents. The UK has been an Observer to the Arctic Council since 1998. While the UK’s scientific contribution to the Council is highly regarded and the publication of the UK’s Arctic strategy in 2013 and 2018 has provided some clarity on the UK’s Arctic interests, we found a lack of strategic direction and little evidence of measurable ambitions or targets. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which leads on co-ordinating Arctic policy, was not able to articulate the UK’s position on a number of matters affecting the Arctic. This is concerning given that the FCO represents the UK at the Arctic Council. The Minister for the Polar Regions should fulfil his role in overseeing the coordination of UK Arctic policy by working to develop a set of strategic priorities along with targets to measure them. We recommend that the UK should appoint a special representative or envoy to the Arctic to play a co-ordinating role, in support of the Polar Regions Department and the Minister.
The UK’s contribution to Arctic research is commendable. The UK is the fourth largest producer of Arctic research papers in the world and operates an Arctic research station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. However, we believe that the UK’s research approach needs to evolve to reflect the complexity of social and environmental change in the Arctic. We heard that Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Arctic programmes are excellent at bringing together otherwise disparate research projects into one coordinated effort. However, NERC programmes do not currently cover emerging environmental threats in the Arctic such as permafrost and vegetation change. We recommend that NERC broadens the scope of its programmes to include these important, emerging issues in order to maintain a coordinated, effective Arctic research effort in the UK. Similarly, we heard that while there is good social science research in the Arctic, it is hard to identify. We recommend the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy provides for the expansion of the NERC Arctic Office to coordinate the new UKRI Arctic Project and to identify disparate Arctic social science research already taking place in UK academic institutions.
Countries as distant as Singapore and China have taken a strong interest in the Arctic, recently becoming Observers to the Arctic Council in 2013. We heard that this brings fresh challenge to the UK’s claim as a “near Arctic state”. There is a risk that the UK’s geographical proximity to the Arctic will be overshadowed by increased foreign investment and scientific research. The UK can play a role in ensuring that foreign interest in the Arctic is driven by a scientific understanding of the challenges facing the Arctic.
The vast reductions in sea ice and warmer temperatures have made the Arctic more accessible than ever. New commercial opportunities, such as tourism, freight shipping and mining have been created by the opening up of Arctic waters. We heard that if these opportunities are not managed correctly, the consequences could be dire. Large cruise and freight ships running on heavy fuel oils (HFOs) are permissible in the Arctic, despite being banned in the Antarctic. The risk of oil spills, pollution and damage to sea ice are immediate environmental threats. Furthermore, we heard that large cruise ships with over 6,000 passengers can overwhelm small Arctic communities. The UK has a responsibility to ensure that commercial opportunities in the Arctic are guided by the principle of sustainable development. The new focus on ‘sustainable’ rather than ‘responsible’ development in the UK Arctic policy is good progress, as is the reference to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, we are concerned that the Government may only paying lip service to the SDGs, rather than using them to guide and monitor its approach to the Arctic. The FCO should use the SDGs to set strategic ambitions and measurable targets in the Arctic strategy.
We heard that not only is exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the Arctic incompatible with the SDGs, it is also incompatible with the UK’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. If the SDGs are to truly inspire and inform the UK’s Arctic policy, the Government should reconsider its encouragement of UK businesses to explore oil and gas opportunities in the Arctic. In its response to this report, the Government should acknowledge the incompatibility of continued support for oil and gas exploitation in the Arctic “for decades to come” with the UK’s SDG commitments and with the Paris Agreement, and set out plans to press members of the Arctic Council to adopt a similar approach.
Published: 29 November 2018