The Changing Arctic Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Changes in the Arctic

1.The Arctic is undergoing profound environmental change as physical processes react to warming surface and ocean temperatures. Sea ice extent and thickness have been reducing for decades, and melting has accelerated since the early 2000s. Sea ice is now at its lowest level since records began and the Arctic ocean is projected to be ice free in the summer as soon as the 2050s unless emissions are reduced. The loss of 270 billion tonnes of land ice from Greenland each year is contributing to sea level rise and disrupting ocean circulation patterns. The acidification and Atlantification of the Arctic Ocean are causes for significant concern as they threaten marine wildlife. Permafrost thaw has the potential to release potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the “Greening” and “Browning” of Arctic vegetation has already led to wildfires and the destruction of habitats. The complex interactions between permafrost thaw, vegetation and the Arctic carbon cycle are not yet fully understood, nor is the rate at which sea ice will decline. (Paragraph 17)

2.The environmental change in the Arctic is a global concern and a global responsibility. The major physical and ecological changes in the Arctic driven by rising temperatures highlight the need for the UK to strengthen its emissions targets to be in line with the UK’s obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement and the Climate Change Act–this should include setting a net-zero target by 2050 at the very latest. While scientific research has made great strides in understanding environmental changes in the Arctic, ‘known unknowns’ remain. We recommend that the Government increases funding and support to UK scientists to advance global understanding of these scenarios and ensure that these groups continue to have access to vital funding provided by the EU through programmes like Horizon 2020. (Paragraph 18)

3.One trillion plastic particles frozen into Arctic sea ice could be released into the ocean in the coming years through accelerated melting from rising temperatures. Between 62,000 and 105,000 tonnes of plastic enter the Arctic every year and plastic beach litter in the Arctic is comparable to densely populated areas, despite its remote and relatively uninhabited nature. The UK has contributed to plastic pollution in the Arctic and must therefore act swiftly to tackle pollution. (Paragraph 24)

4.We welcome the Government’s commitment to tackle the sources of plastic pollution including the ban on the manufacture and sale of microplastics which our predecessor Committee called for in 2016, and which came into force in 2018. This ambition must be met with effective plastic reduction policies to ensure extended producer responsibility to include responsibility for collection, transportation, recycling, disposal, treatment and recovery of its packaging, improved design for recyclability and to create the necessary infrastructure to meet domestic demand. We recommend that the Government contribute to clean-up operations on Arctic beaches to take responsibility for the plastic pollution from the UK that has been transported to the Arctic by ocean currents. We heard that research into ocean plastics is in its infancy. The Government should commit funding to research the potential consequences of an influx of plastic particles trapped in melting Arctic sea ice and ensure that academics and scientists have continued access to research funding and opportunities by UK participation in EU schemes. Following our predecessor Committee’s report on microplastics we welcome the Chief Medical Officer’s recent announcement of its consultation on the health implications of these plastic particles entering our food chains. In addition, in its response to this report, the Government should set out a clear timeline for a comprehensive and wide-ranging plan to reduce UK plastic pollution–not least because of its impact in the Arctic. That should include, for example, bringing forward the existing 2042 plastic waste phase-out date, a ban on plastics that are difficult or impossible to recycle, a commitment to reforming the Packaging Recovery Note scheme and expediting a nationwide Deposit Return Scheme. (Paragraph 25)

5.Arctic amplification is forcing Arctic communities to adapt quickly to higher temperatures, threatening their transport networks and food security. As part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UK has commitments to create sustainable communities at home and abroad. As part of these obligations the UK should build a net zero emission economy by 2050, which will help reverse the albedo effect. We believe that Defra’s adaptation portfolio could benefit from sharing adaptation expertise, including the successes and failures of adaptation measures, with Arctic states. (Paragraph 35)

6.The UK has an opportunity to drive forward the Arctic Council’s focus on the SDGs. We recommend the Government set a series of adaptation targets for the next iteration of UK Arctic policy within the next twelve months, when the Government should publish an annex to the Arctic Policy Framework. These targets should outline how the UK will help Arctic communities to adapt to changes in the Arctic environment now and in the future. The Government should fund more research into the social consequences of climate change. We believe there is an opportunity for DEFRA to share expertise on adaptation policy which could prove mutually beneficial, helping Arctic communities to adapt whilst preparing for future UK adaptation measures. (Paragraph 36)

7.Arctic weather patterns affect UK weather and can cause extreme weather events. Predicting future implications for the UK’s climate requires complex modelling which is being undertaken by leading UK institutions including the Met Office. We welcome the ongoing research undertaken by the Met Office to understand the relationship between reductions in sea ice and the UK’s future climate and recommend this work by the Polar Amplification Model Intercomparison Project is fed into future National Adaptation Programmes at the earliest opportunity. (Paragraph 40)

8.Arctic biodiversity is crucial for many ecosystems around the world. The UK’s biodiversity has significant links with the Arctic including many migratory birds, such as waterbirds. The waterbird population is expected to decline by about 50% by the end of the century due to Arctic warming. For the UK to meet its commitment to “take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species” under Sustainable Development Goal 15, the protection of biodiversity in the Arctic area is absolutely key. We recommend that the Government set clear, measurable targets to protect Arctic biodiversity in line with SDG Goal 15. We would like to see monitoring and research to survey, map, and understand Arctic biodiversity extended, enabling the UK to contribute further research to Arctic Council working group on the conservation of Arctic flora and fauna (CAFF). (Paragraph 45)

UK Arctic research and funding

9.UK Arctic research is world leading and the UK ranks fourth in the world for the number of scientific papers produced. We were pleased to hear that this research is “at the heart” of UK Arctic policymaking and also fed into work conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Arctic Council working groups. We heard how important infrastructure is for research in extreme polar environments but were disappointed to hear that the UK’s infrastructure in the Arctic is modest compared to that in Antarctica. While we understand the historical and geopolitical reasons behind this, we believe that due to the importance of the Arctic for the UK’s climate stability, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should significantly increase funding for Arctic research infrastructure. We recommend that the Government outline its plan for the developing the infrastructure in the Arctic. (Paragraph 53)

10.The UK produces world leading research into the environmental changes taking place in the Arctic, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. NERC’s two targeted Arctic programmes have provided coordination and communication which has increased the impact and effectiveness of the research undertaken, but the scope of these programmes is limited. We would like to see the framework for the NERC programmes expanded to provide the same level of coordinated research for other important, emerging issues such as land ice melt, permafrost thaw, carbon balance, vegetation change and interactions between land, sea and air. This would also help to improve collaborations and reduce the “scattered” nature of UK Arctic research spread across UK universities and institutions. (Paragraph 57)

11.To remain as a world leader in Arctic research, the UK will need to move towards a multidisciplinary approach, which includes the social sciences and brings research together from across research councils. According to the Minister for the Polar Regions, “scientific evidence runs throughout Beyond the Ice and is at the heart of UK Arctic policy”, but we heard that despite the UK having world leading social scientists, this expertise is not being harnessed to inform UK Arctic policy. The Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council do not fund Arctic research to the same degree as the Natural Environment Research Council due to limitations in their budgets. (Paragraph 67)

12.We recommend the Government allocate specific funds for an Arctic project within UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) which would enable collaboration between the Economic and Social, Arts and Humanities and Natural Environment Research Councils. Multidisciplinary research is key to finding solutions to the complex problems of the Arctic and the NERC Arctic Office is facilitating this to the best of its ability given the limited resources available. 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. Expanding the NERC Arctic Office would enable it to increase its work on building international connections, new collaborations and encouraging multidisciplinary approaches. This would enable the Government to take a leadership role on developing climate resilience for remote communities, which would bring domestic benefits, and allow adaptation measures to assume a higher priority in UK Arctic Policy. (Paragraph 68)

13.A recurring concern raised in the evidence was uncertainty over Arctic funding following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. We are pleased to hear that the UK will remain a member of the European Polar Board. It is not, however, known whether the UK will continue to contribute to large programmes such as the European Research Council (ERC), Horizon2020, Copernicus and Galileo. There is also uncertainty about scientific personnel and maintaining the ability to attract the best researchers to academic positions. These uncertainties are having a chilling effect on UK Arctic research. Maintaining the UK’s strong track record in Arctic research is vital, but UK institutions need secure funding sources and free movement for the brightest researchers to continue their world-leading research. (Paragraph 78)

14.The Foreign and Commonwealth Office should emphasise the importance of securing funding for Arctic research to the Treasury and to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, given that UK Arctic research underpins all UK Arctic Policy. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should commit funds for any shortfalls in funding after we leave the European Union. Membership of the EU has been vital to UK leadership in arctic science. In negotiating the UK’s future relationship with the EU, the Government should seek to maintain the current level of collaboration and co-operation with the EU and ensure the same access to EU programmes. (Paragraph 79)

The UK’s relationship with the Arctic

15.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. (Paragraph 88)

16.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. (Paragraph 89)

17.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 (Paragraph 97)

18.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. (Paragraph 98)

19.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. (Paragraph 109)

20.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. (Paragraph 110)

Commercialisation of the Arctic

21.The loss of sea ice creates new economic and social opportunities and risks in the Arctic. We heard that if these opportunities are not managed correctly, the consequences could be dire for the Arctic. 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 a welcome change in the Government’s intentions, as is the explicit reference to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, we are concerned that the Government may only be paying lip service to the SDGs, rather than using them to guide and evaluate its approach to the Arctic. (Paragraph 123)

22.The UK has identified three SDGs relevant to the Arctic; Climate Action (Goal 13), Life Below Water (Goal 14) and Life on Land (Goal 15), but the Minister for the Polar Regions was not able to explain how the SDGs applied in an Arctic context, nor how their implementation is audited. Even though the Government has identified Goal 13 as particularly relevant to the Arctic, the Minister told us that the compatibility of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic with the ambition of Goal 13 had not been explicitly put to him. We heard that not only is drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic incompatible with the SDGs, it is also incompatible with the UK’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. However, the UK’s Arctic policy notes that it supports the use of “the highest possible standards” in Arctic oil and gas activities, rather than supporting the termination of drilling in the Arctic. (Paragraph 124)

23.If the SDGs are to inspire and inform the UK’s Arctic policy, the Government should consider ending 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. (Paragraph 125)

24.Additionally, as recommended earlier in this report, the FCO should set a series of strategic priorities and targets for the UK’s sustainable engagement with the Arctic. The SDGs should be used to set and evaluate these priorities. There are more than three SDGs relevant to the Arctic and this should be acknowledged throughout the next iteration of the UK Arctic policy, such as; Goal 7 (affordable and clean energy), Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth) and Goal 11 (sustainable cities and communities). The use of the SDGs will ensure that the UK takes a sustainable approach to Arctic tourism, social issues and economic development in Arctic communities. (Paragraph 126)

25.As Arctic sea ice melts, new shipping routes are becoming increasingly accessible. We heard that by 2050, the Arctic could be ice free in summer. However, it will be some time until the Arctic seas can be fully utilised for transit shipping. We are concerned that there is a quickening “albedo effect” in the economic exploitation of the Arctic; as sea ice melts, more shipping is possible but this in turn further threatens the environment. The risk of oil spills, higher carbon emissions and plastic pollution threaten the fragile environment of the Arctic. (Paragraph 136)

26.The Polar Code should be amended to protect the Arctic from the risks from increased shipping. The Polar Code includes some provisions on environmental protection in the Arctic such as a ban on the disposal of food and plastic waste, but the Arctic has fewer environmental protections than the Antarctic. The ban on dangerous heavy fuel oils currently applied in the Antarctic should be extended to the Arctic as soon as is technologically feasible. Provisions on marine noise and invasive species should also be added to ensure that increasing shipping does not threaten Arctic biodiversity and marine wildlife. (Paragraph 137)

27.The UK Government should press the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to ban HFO in the Arctic as soon as is technologically feasible and strengthen its involvement in the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment working group of the Arctic Council to ensure that the Arctic Council is itself able to make an influential, science-driven representation to the IMO. The UK should push the IMO to make the Arctic designated as a special sensitive area under MARPOL annex 6 and thus join other seas such as the ‘Antarctic area’. (Paragraph 138)

28.Arctic tourism can bring numerous economic opportunities to the region if it is managed correctly. Over the past decade the number of people going on Arctic cruises has increased from around 50,000 passengers per year to around 80,000 in 2016, and the market for small cruises in particular is expected to grow by almost 50% over the next three years. There is a risk that the thousands of tourists who travel to see a pristine, remote and unspoilt Arctic landscape are contributing to degradation of the very environment they came to see, and increased tourism can disrupt traditional ways of life. We heard that very large cruise ships with around 6,000 passengers are docking in small Arctic communities and overwhelming them. Large cruise ships also heighten risks of plastic pollution and place additional strain on already limited search and rescue capacity in the Arctic. (Paragraph 145)

29.The Arctic states have an opportunity to place limits on the type of tourism acceptable in the Arctic region. The UK should work with the Sustainable Development Working Group of the Arctic Council to push for a ban on cruise ships of over 500 passengers, and instead promote sustainable and considered Arctic tourism. The UK should engage with the Permanent Participants on the Arctic Council to ensure that they have the capacity, in collaboration with Arctic states, to influence the development of Arctic tourism so it is managed in a way that benefits their communities. (Paragraph 146)

Published: 29 November 2018