The Changing Arctic Contents

3The UK’s relationship with the Arctic

Sovereignty over the Arctic

80.The Arctic has long been an area of commercial, geopolitical and strategic interest. The polar region has historically boasted economic opportunities in the form of shipping routes, natural minerals as well as fish, seals, walrus and whales. These opportunities have been capitalised on by many nations over the centuries. As early as the 15th century, British, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian and Danish explorers searched for a viable shipping route through to Asia. In the 17th century whale and walrus hunting was prominent across the Arctic, resulting in the collapse of Arctic mammal populations by the turn of the 20th century. From the 1900s onwards, coal mining and oil and gas extraction was widespread across Alaska, Yukon, the Russian North and Svalbard.

81.As global interest in the Arctic intensified at the beginning of the twentieth century, the state of sovereign rights over land and sea became more prominent. In the case of Svalbard, a treaty was signed in 1920 (which entered into force in 1925) to determine Norway’s full and undivided sovereignty over the area. Signatories to the treaty such as Russia and the UK, however, were granted economic rights as part of a post-World War I settlement which ensured that Svalbard was demilitarised. Most land boundaries in the Arctic are undisputed, but maritime boundaries are less settled, including who ‘owns’ the North Pole area itself. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), each coastal state has an ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ stretching up to 200 nautical miles offshore, giving them sovereign rights over resource exploitation and development. The five Arctic coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States) reaffirmed their collective commitment to the ‘Law of the Sea’ (the US remains a non-signatory to UNCLOS) through the Ilulissat Declaration of 2008. All eight Arctic states met in Ilulissat in May 2018 to re-affirm their collective commitment to the principles enshrined in the Ilulissat Declaration of 2008. The Government’s Arctic Policy, Beyond the Ice states:

Although the UK is not an Arctic State, we are its nearest neighbour, with Lerwick in the Shetland Islands closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London. We have always been a world leader in polar affairs where British views have long held sway in the fields of polar science, exploration, diplomacy, business and environmental protection.

The Arctic Council

82.The political stability of the Arctic is in part the result of the co-operation of the states through the Arctic Council. The eight Arctic states established the Arctic Council in 1996 as a “high-level intergovernmental forum to provide a means for promoting co-operation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States”. The Arctic Council includes other countries and organisations as recognised observers. The Council promotes circumpolar co-operation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous communities (recognised as Permanent Participants132) and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular sustainable development and environmental protection.

83.The Arctic Council is considered the primary international forum for cooperation on Arctic matters. It does not ‘govern’ the Arctic, but it provides a forum for the negotiation of three legally binding agreements among the Arctic States (see box 1). Henry Burgess, Head of the NERC Arctic Office, explained the limitations of the Arctic Council:

… the important thing we need to remember all the time is that the Arctic Council is not a regulatory body. It does not have power to regulate in the Arctic. It is a body where people can discuss environmental and sustainability issues, but it is not a body that regulates in the Arctic. It provides guidance reports, best practice and assessments.133

Box 1: Legally binding agreements signed by Arctic states

2011: The Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic. Signed in Nuuk, Greenland.

2013: The Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. Signed in Kiruna, Sweden.

2017: The Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation. Signed in Fairbanks, Alaska.



84.Observer status is open to non-Arctic states; intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary organisations, global and regional; and non-government organisations. The UK has been an Observer to the Arctic Council since 1998 and was present at the signing ceremony in September 1996. At the 2013 Kiruna Ministerial meeting, the Arctic Council formally adopted an Observer Manual for Subsidiary Bodies. The Manual outlines how Observers can participate in Arctic Council meetings:

Observers may, at the discretion of the Chair, make statements, present written statements, submit relevant documents and provide views on the issues under discussion. On any agenda item under discussion, the Chair should ensure that speakers from Arctic State and Permanent Participant delegations have first had an opportunity to intervene and discuss the agenda item, before considering opening the discussion to further interventions from all delegations to the meeting, including speakers from Observer delegations.134

85.In essence, the role of an Observer is to observe the proceedings of the Arctic Council and only to participate when called to. Dr Downie, Head of Polar Programme at WWF, which is also an Observer to the Arctic Council, noted that Observers could be “critical friends to the Arctic Council” providing crucial challenge to their deliberations and negotiations. Dr Downie made the case for a more progressive, strengthened role for Observers, especially given how engaged Observers are in the working groups of the Arctic Council:

For us observer is a misnomer because we are very active right across the working groups.135

86.The Geological Society emphasised that the UK should capitalise on its position as an Observer State:

In our role as an Observer State, there is room for the UK to expand its influence on the Arctic Council but to also use that position to learn from the successes in other countries, such as the Canadian regulatory regime for extractives. The Arctic Council is viewed internationally to have an important role in international diplomacy and offers opportunities to engage with other countries outside of central government negotiations. The UK’s place on the Council and its access to alternative routes to diplomacy and knowledge sharing should be taken full advantage of.136

87.The Minister for the Polar Regions however seemed reluctant to increase the UK’s activities:

I think we are fully engaged, and I think the cleverness of our engagement is that it is not overly bossy and didactic… I think the role we play is in being a very significant and, I think, highly respected participant in international organisations and fora that develop relevant policies.137

88.The Arctic Council is the most important international forum for Arctic matters and the UK is a long-standing Observer. The UK has carefully balanced its role in assisting and influencing the Council with the fact that the UK is not an Arctic State. The Arctic Council has established clear parameters for the level of involvement Observers can have, but within those the UK should provide more clarity on what it intends to do as an Observer over the long term.

89.We recommend that the Government should set out explicitly what it hopes to achieve through the UK’s position as an Observer to the Arctic Council over the next 10 years. This may help the strategic direction of the Council, as the two year rotation of the chairmanship can bring frequent changes to priorities for the Council. In addition, the UK should be more transparent about its work with the Arctic Council. The Government should publish the ‘reporting card’ it produced to reaffirm its status as an Observer as well as publishing its contributions to the six Arctic Council working groups.

Growing international interest in the Arctic

90.The Arctic has become a subject of greater strategic interest over the past few years, due in part to the overwhelming evidence of climate change alongside increasing interest in the region’s natural resources, tourism potential and emerging shipping routes. From 2013 onwards, there has been a significant increase in the number of state Observers to the Arctic Council. At the Kiruna Ministerial meeting in 2013, Italy, Japan, China, India, Korea and Singapore became approved Observers. In 2017, Switzerland also became an Observer bringing the total number of state Observers to thirteen. Dr Richard Powell, Lecturer and Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge said:

The argument that the United Kingdom is the closest neighbour and, therefore, we should always be at the table - we have always been in the room listening to the discussion since the first meeting of the Arctic Council back in 1996 - has inevitably been disrupted by new actors. That is not just China but lots of other Asian states are increasingly interested in the region. There are definitely lots of issues about global responsibilities and particular state national interests in the region.138

91.Beyond the Ice recognises that “the growth of interest in the Arctic has led to a significant interest in the region from both governments and civil society”.139 Jane Rumble of the FCO explained that while it might seem counterintuitive, China and other Asian states have legitimate interest in the Arctic:

It really comes down to those countries that recognise the importance of the polar regions, in terms of driving the whole global systems. We were talking earlier about the sea ice melting in the north. Bizarrely… what happens in the north will disproportionately affect the south, and what happens in the south will disproportionately affect the north … That explains why countries a very long way from the Arctic are sitting up and taking notice of the changes there.140

The Minister for the Polar Regions expressed support for the increase in the number of Observers, stating that “the more people who take a direct interest and are well intentioned in what they do - that it is the key - the better.”141

92.We did however hear concerns that the UK’s position could weaken due to the rise in the number of Observers. In his 2018 book, Britain and the Arctic, Duncan Depledge is critical of the lack of presence of UK scientists at key Arctic science meetings, stating that China, Japan and Korea are enhancing their profile at such meetings. Depledge is concerned that the UK may lose influence if it does not maintain a high-profile presence in the appropriate Arctic scientific forums because of the diplomatic status accorded to Arctic science.142 Japan recently hosted the Top of the World Arctic Broadband Summit in June 2018, which involved discussions between policy leaders, researchers, tech industry experts and other executives around the need and potential for broadband across the Arctic, and how to best prepare for the many opportunities and challenges the new technology will bring with it.

93.The European Commission, Finland and Germany will co-host the 2nd Arctic science ministerial meeting in Berlin in October this year. The 1st Arctic Science Ministerial, hosted by the White House in 2016, brought together science ministers from 24 governments, EU representatives and delegates from Arctic Indigenous peoples’ organisations. Their discussions centred on collective efforts to step up international scientific cooperation in the Arctic. The aim of the 2nd Arctic science ministerial is “to promote the results of the deliverables agreed at the 1st meeting, increase capacity to respond to major societal challenges in the Arctic, encourage further scientific cooperation among a large number of countries and representatives of indigenous people.”

94.Richard Powell said that the UK can no longer rely on its geographic proximity, and scientific contribution to, the Arctic given that other countries have substantially increased investment in the Arctic:

The People’s Republic of China is making the same argument about being a near neighbour. The spatial geographical link argument is very similar but the UK’s investment in science and wider activities is dwarfed by China.143

95.Other countries are positioning themselves as ‘near-Arctic states’ and working closely with ‘gateway’ Arctic countries such as Finland and Iceland–which themselves are eager to develop a competitive advantage over other Arctic states. Relative geographical proximity to the Arctic region no longer necessarily confers commercial, scientific and geopolitical advantage to the UK. Dr Alexandra Middleton, Assistant Professor at the University of Oulu made a similar argument and welcomed stronger involvement in the Arctic from the British Government stating:

Scotland is much closer to the Arctic Circle than China and China claims itself as a near-Arctic nation. You could have a stronger statement as well.144

96.China unveiled a plan for a ‘Polar Silk Road’ as part of its Arctic policy in January 2018. The country would like to “jointly understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance of the Arctic, and advance Arctic-related cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative,” according to the white paper. On 6th September, the 36,000 tonne Chinese cargo ship Tianen completed its maiden voyage from Beijing to Rouen, France, through the Arctic Circle.145 China’s Arctic policy also outlines an interest in the development of oil, gas, mineral and other non-fossil energies, fishing and tourism in the region while respecting the traditions and cultures of indigenous people and conserving the natural environment. Recent Chinese investments include an agreement to exploit Greenland’s rare earth minerals and a Northern Lights research institute in Iceland (funded by China’s Polar Research Institute). China, as part of the terms and conditions to become an Observer to the Arctic Council in 2013, acknowledged the sovereignty and sovereign rights of the eight Arctic states and the special position of indigenous peoples as Permanent Participants.

97.The United Kingdom is a long-standing Observer to the Arctic Council and has a strong reputation for engaging with the work of the Council and contributing scientific expertise to the working groups. The significant increase in the number of State Observers to the Arctic Council since 2013 brings a 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 by others. 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.

98.The Arctic Council is becoming an increasingly global forum for securing agreements, cooperation and dialogue on Arctic issues. The Government should ensure that there are UK representatives at all important Arctic science meetings and scientific forums, including the upcoming Arctic Scientific Forum in Berlin. The UK should offer to host a forthcoming Arctic Scientific Forum, possibly in collaboration with an Arctic State.

UK Arctic Policy

99.The UK has its own Arctic Policy. The first iteration of the policy was published in 2013, following a recommendation from our predecessor Committee in their 2012 report Protecting the Arctic. The Committee called on the Government to:

… 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.146

100.The UK’s original Arctic policy Adapting to Change set out three overarching principles: respect, leadership and cooperation.

101.The revised 2018 policy, Beyond the Ice, reaffirms the UK’s commitment to these overarching principles stating that they “remain the right ones and are central to our approach in the Arctic.”148

102.Beyond the Ice has been praised for its ambition and wide-ranging scope. Henry Burgess of the NERC Arctic Office said that “the fact the science story flows through all the three categories of the document… is a fantastic story for the UK science community to be a part of and to tell.”149The National Oceanography Centre expressed a similarly positive view of the UK’s Arctic policy noting that from the outset, “UK-based Arctic science was identified as having a unique role in contributing to policy, reputation and influence.”150

103.The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has overall lead on Arctic Policy, with the Minister for the Polar Regions supported by the Polar Regions Department. Different departments lead on various aspects of UK Arctic Policy such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The Minister for the Polar Regions, Sir Alan Duncan, said that his role “is to oversee the co-ordination of UK Arctic policy in the UK’s engagement with the Arctic Council.”151

104.However, the Minister’s view of the UK’s Arctic policy was at times lacking. When asked how the FCO views the role of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in the development of UK Arctic policy, the Minister said it was “the responsibility of BEIS”.152 While BEIS is responsible for funding NERC, the FCO claims in its written evidence that “scientific evidence runs throughout Beyond the Ice and is at the heart of UK Arctic policy”.153 We would have expected the Minister to have a view on how NERC funded science is put to work in informing UK policy and scientific diplomacy. We would also have expected the FCO to have a view on issues such as shipping, sustainable development, search and rescue, and tourism.154

105.The Polar Regions Department in the FCO oversees the development and implementation of UK policy in both the Antarctic and the Arctic. Head of the Department, Jane Rumble explained that whereas in the Antarctic the UK “ has full policy responsibility for absolutely everything” because of the British Antarctic Territory, in the Arctic the FCO’s role is “more co-ordinating and representational.”155 Jane Rumble also explained the FCO has about the same level of resource dedicated to the Arctic as the British Antarctic Survey; about one and a half people.156 While there are important historic and political reasons for more resource being dedicated to the Antarctic, the Arctic is an increasingly complex region that should command more resource within the FCO.

106.The Minister for the Polar regions is also Minister for Europe and the Americas. With such an extensive brief, we are concerned that the Minister may not be able to prioritise taking a more active role in co-ordinating UK Arctic activity. The appointment of a UK special representative or envoy to the Arctic would help to address those gaps in governance and representation. Our concerns have been shared by our colleagues in other Parliamentary Committees. For example, in its report “Responding to a Changing Arctic”, published February 2015, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic stated that:

The Government should follow the example of others in appointing a UK Ambassador for the Arctic, based in the FCO’s Polar Regions Department, to ensure greater focus on and co-ordination of Arctic affairs in Government. The Ambassador should chair the cross- Whitehall Arctic network. He or she should also prioritise bringing together the UK Arctic science, policy, academic, industry and business communities in order to strengthen opportunities for the UK in the region and spearhead UK interests in the Arctic.157

It also stated that:

It is important for the UK to be not just occasionally but consistently and authoritatively represented at Arctic Council meetings, meetings of other Arctic co-operation bodies, and meetings of organisations working on Arctic-related issues and treaties. The appointment of a UK Arctic Ambassador, with funding to support that role, would be central to the delivery of this objective. When it is the collective view that the UK ought to be represented at a particular Arctic meeting the relevant department or research council should be required to provide and fund such representation.158

Similarly, in its report “On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic”, published in August 2018, the House of Commons Defence Committee asked the Government to:

Reconsider its decision not to appoint an Arctic Ambassador to improve co-ordination of policy in Whitehall and bolster UK representation in Arctic Affairs.159

Scotland’s Connection with the Arctic

107.Beyond the Ice notes that “due to its proximity to the European Arctic, Scotland enjoys a long history of shared economic, social and cultural links.”160 Professor Inall, from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) outlined that Scotland has taken a keen interest in the ‘New North’ or the ‘High North’ as an opportunity for sharing expertise in the social needs and economic opportunities of Scottish communities and those of Arctic nations such as Iceland and Norway. Issues include sustainable fisheries management, port infrastructure, the supply chain for oil and gas, sustainable tourism and social issues.161 The Arctic Circle Forum event, ‘Scotland and the New North’, hosted in Edinburgh in 2017, was an effective platform for both Scotland and the UK to promote their expertise in responsible development and industry best practise to an audience dominated by Arctic nations.

108.The Scottish Government announced that it would develop its own Arctic Strategy on devolved matters at the Arctic Circle Forum in Edinburgh in November 2017. When we asked the Minister for the Polar Regions about the FCO’s relationship involvement in the Scottish Arctic Strategy, he told us that the Arctic is primarily a UK policy area and that FCO officials work closely with the Scottish Government to ensure that the UK’s Arctic policy represents the interests of Scotland. However, Dr Powell from the Scott Polar Research Institute suggested that Scotland has some issues with the UK’s claim to be the Arctic’s nearest neighbour, given that it is the Shetland Islands that are close to the Arctic.162

109.Our predecessor Committee called for a UK Arctic policy that would ensure Government departments work together in a cross-cutting way. The second iteration of the resulting UK Arctic strategy, Beyond the Ice, is a commendable document that covers the breadth of the UK’s interests in the Arctic. However, we found that 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. While there are important geopolitical reasons for more departmental resource within the FCO to be dedicated to the Antarctic, we believe that the speed and complexity of change in the Arctic means that British engagement with the region should be increased. The Committee recognises that the Minister for the Polar regions is also Minister for Europe and the Americas and that it is therefore unfair to expect the Minister to take a more active role in co-ordinating UK Arctic activity. We therefore recommend that the Government further considers the recommendations by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic in 2015, and the House of Commons Defence Committee in 2018, 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.

110.In order effectively to influence the Arctic Council, the UK needs to have a coordinated Arctic policy led by the FCO. When our predecessor Committee recommended the introduction of an Arctic strategy to ensure cross-cutting departmental work, they envisaged a deeper level of coordination than the production of a shared Government document. 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. To facilitate the establishment and measurement of these Arctic priorities, the FCO should dedicate more departmental resources to the Arctic to ensure that the UK is capitalising on the opportunities in the Arctic and fully participating in the work of the Arctic Council.

132 The category of Permanent Participant was created to provide for active participation and full consultation with the Arctic indigenous peoples within the Arctic Council. They include: the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Sami Council.

134 (it was revised in 2015 and 2016).

136 Geological Society (ARC0006)

139 Beyond the Ice, HM Government, 2018

142 Britain and the Arctic, Duncan Depledge, 2018, Palgrave Macmillan

146 Protecting the Arctic, Second Report of the Session 2012–13, Environmental Audit Committee

147 Adapting to Change, HM Government, 2013

148 Beyond the Ice, HM Government, 2018

150 The National Oceanography Centre (ARC0001)

153 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (ARC0016)

157 Responding to a Changing Arctic, House of Lords Arctic Select Committee, 2015

158 Responding to a Changing Arctic, House of Lords Arctic Select Committee, 2015

159 Defence Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2017–19, On Thin Ice: Defence in the Arctic, HC 388.

160 Beyond the Ice, HM Government, 2018

Published: 29 November 2018