The UK and the Arctic Environment – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Environmental Audit Committee

Related inquiry: The UK and the Arctic Environment

Date Published: 13 October 2023

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The Arctic is undergoing rapid and alarming changes due to climate change, warming up to four times faster than the global average. This has led to a significant reduction in summer sea ice, with projections indicating potential ice-free summers by the 2030s. The Central Arctic Ocean may soon be transformed into a new sea. These shifts are already wreaking havoc on Arctic ecosystems and communities, forcing them to adapt their traditional ways of life to cope with the profound alterations in their homelands and livelihoods.

Arctic changes will impact global climate systems. The UK faces a major threat from rising sea levels, putting 1.5 million properties at risk of flooding by the 2080s. There is mounting evidence to suggest that Arctic changes will lead to more extreme weather events in the UK.

The Arctic, though remote, is highly susceptible to human-caused warming. Immediate global action is imperative to combat climate change, limit global warming to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5–2°C target, and safeguard the fragile Arctic environment.

The notion of a peaceful Arctic is rapidly fading. Russia’s conflict with Ukraine has disrupted pan-Arctic cooperation, side-lining pressing environmental concerns. The Arctic Council, hindered by Russia’s actions, now struggles to perform as the key forum for cooperation among Arctic states. Arctic climate change demands more cooperation, yet Russia’s actions have sown international divisions. Western scientists now lack access to Russia’s 50% of the Arctic coastline, creating gaps in our understanding of its rapid transformation.

The UK, although not within the Arctic circle, is the region’s closest neighbour. Government policy on the region is disjointed, and responsible Ministers have not convened. We emphasise the need for an Envoy to bolster government collaboration in addressing the combined challenges of climate and geopolitics in the Arctic.
The UK wields influence in Arctic politics through its dual expertise in science and security. Russia’s actions provide a unique opportunity for the UK to leverage its scientific prowess to address climate change impacts and keep the environment at the forefront of international priorities.

UK Arctic researchers punch well above their weight in terms of reputation and influence. The UK is the fourth largest producer of Arctic research papers in the world and operates an Arctic research station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, which is pivotal to the UK’s Arctic scientific capacity. This presence should be supported and bolstered. The RSS Sir David Attenborough is a crucial asset for UK science, but her Arctic deployment is limited, and there should be consideration of an additional vessel. The RSS Sir David Attenborough should visit the North Pole, as a serious statement of the UK’s commitment to global science.

Much more research is needed to grasp the implications of future Arctic climate changes for both human and natural systems. We would like to see a more interdisciplinary, internationally collaborative approach. In our view there should be a UK National Arctic Research Policy, backed by increased funding, and the Arctic should be elevated within UKRI priorities. The UK is well primed to contribute to international long-term scientific observation systems tracking Arctic changes, and this needs more support. Polar science demands international collaboration, and we welcome the Government’s decision to re-join Horizon Europe and the Copernicus Earth Programmes.

The Arctic is seeing an increased level of strategic competition as melting Arctic ice unlocks vast resources and commercial potential. This cannot be at the cost of the Arctic’s Indigenous Peoples or the environment. The UK has a responsibility to ensure that commercial opportunities in the Arctic are guided by the principles of sustainable development, ensuring that UK businesses are supported to work with local and Indigenous communities. We recommend that there should be a code of conduct for businesses with Arctic interests to support this.

As Arctic sea ice melts, shipping routes open, potentially cutting travel times by 11 to 14 days between Europe and China. These routes are likely to be hazardous and unpredictable. We believe that the Polar Code should be strengthened to include a wider range of vessels and, until that happens, the Government should encourage all UK vessels visiting the region to be Polar Code compliant. Potential shipping gains come with steep environmental risks: higher chances of fuel spills, increased pollution, and greater black carbon deposits on Arctic ice, exacerbating climate change. We welcome the International Maritime Organisation’s ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, but we strongly believe that the Government should press for an earlier full adoption of the ban in 2024, rather than in 2029 as planned.

Climate change is reshaping Arctic marine ecosystems, causing fish stocks to shift northward. The UK, through the distant water fishing sector, has interests in Arctic fisheries. We believe that those interests must only be pursued if they do not undermine Indigenous People’s interests or environmental considerations. We recommend that the Government should join the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries agreement without delay.

The Arctic holds vast reserves of fossil fuels and minerals, including 13% of undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered gas worldwide. Extractive industries in the region pose significant risks to the climate and environment through emissions and habitat destruction. We believe that further research is crucial to understand the potential impacts and to develop mitigation strategies for sustainable mineral extraction. Strong policies are needed to safeguard the Arctic and its communities. We welcome the Government’s commitment to sponsor no exploitation licences for deep sea mining, but we recommend that the Government should go further and support international calls for a precautionary pause until there is further evidence about the potential impacts.

Arctic tourism is set to rise, offering economic benefits if managed well. However, there are concerns regarding cultural, environmental, and safety impacts. Industry players are already taking steps to address these, but we think that ongoing development of steps to manage the impacts of the tourism industry is crucial as the Arctic evolves.