Select Committee on the Arctic - Report of Session 2014–15

Responding to a changing Arctic


Summary of Conclusions and Recommendations

Chapter 2: Climate change in the Arctic

1.While it is not currently possible to predict accurately when the Arctic Ocean will experience summers that are reliably free of sea ice, it is evident that there is a sharp underlying downward trend in sea ice extent and volume. It is a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ the Arctic will be substantially free of sea ice in summer. (Paragraph 39)

2.The potential for significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane to be released from the Arctic permafrost and seabed, as a result of rising temperatures, is acknowledged but not yet fully measured or understood. Further research is required if the risks associated with these issues are to be fully calculated and planned for, both in the Arctic and beyond. We recommend that the Natural Environment Research Council should ensure that this issue is considered in any new dedicated Arctic research programme. (Paragraph 58)

3.The Arctic region is at the frontline of climate change and is being affected more rapidly by climate change than other parts of the globe. Particular concerns exist over melting land ice and a consequent rise in sea levels, as well as diminishing sea ice and melting permafrost. Loss of sea ice is expected to continue in the Arctic Ocean, with open water contributing to the further amplification of climate change. Physical, ecological, economic and geopolitical changes—both negative and positive—are arising as a result of the changing Arctic climate, and polar warming will have an impact upon ecosystem dynamics and human communities. While reductions in sea ice extent will make access to parts of the marine Arctic easier in future, changes such as permafrost and ice road melting may make investment in the terrestrial Arctic more difficult at least in the medium term, although there may be countervailing factors: the jury is out. (Paragraph 71)

4.Understanding of the effects of climate change upon the Arctic and their causes in many places is lacking or severely limited. A great deal of further research is still required in order to assess and understand the effects and implications of Arctic climate change. (Paragraph 72)

Chapter 3: Globalisation and governance

5.We conclude that the ‘scramble for the Arctic’ narrative is overly dramatic: territorial claims are overwhelmingly already settled, and where they are not there is widespread acceptance of the rules under which they should be settled, little material gain to be had from aggressive claims, and much material gain on offer from co-operation and peaceful settlement. There is no room for complacency, however. (Paragraph 101)

6.The international legal regime governing Arctic waters is important and must continue to be upheld by the Arctic states and the whole international community. (Paragraph 102)

7.The US would send a positive signal on international co-operation in the region if it were to engage with the process for ratifying UNCLOS during its upcoming chairmanship of the Arctic Council: a rules-based Arctic is to the advantage of everyone, not least the US. (Paragraph 104)

8.We encourage the Arctic Council to continue examining how best to achieve continuity between Chairmanships, in order to build on the considerable progress being made by the Arctic Council. We consider that troikas might be helpful in this regard. (Paragraph 114)

9.The achievements of the Arctic Council as an intergovernmental forum are significant and welcome. The role of the Permanent Participants is ground-breaking in international affairs. Serious and comprehensive co-operation in the Arctic is in the global common interest, and this framework for continued progress must be nurtured and supported, including by the UK. (Paragraph 133)

10.Russia’s foreign policy has become increasingly difficult to predict, and we cannot be confident that peaceful co-operation in the Arctic will continue indefinitely. However, every effort should be made to insulate Arctic co-operation from geopolitical tensions arising in other parts of the world because there is a global interest in protecting this unusually vulnerable environment. All states with Arctic interests, including the UK, should therefore work to prevent Arctic co-operation from being damaged by non-Arctic disputes. (Paragraph 140)

11.The European Union’s case for permanent observer status at the Arctic Council is overwhelming. (Paragraph 147)

12.The EU’s application for observer status at the Arctic Council should be treated on its merits. The UK should continue to voice its strong support for the EU to be granted permanent observer status at the 2017 Ministerial meeting at the latest. (Paragraph 151)

13.The Arctic Council will need to ensure observer states feel that their voice is listened to if it wants to either benefit further from their contributions or place more demands upon them. The UK should push for the criteria governing observer participation to be reviewed within the US Chairmanship (2015–17), with the aim of ensuring that observers such as the UK feel encouraged and incentivised to participate proactively and extensively in Arctic co-operation. (Paragraph 163)

14.One way forward might be for the Arctic Council to consult different groups of observers according to the issue or geographical focus under discussion, rather than treating them as a homogenous bloc. (Paragraph 164)

15.Those concerned with the Arctic should seek to use the momentum around the region being generated by the enthusiasm of new observer states efficiently and effectively. Consideration should be given by the Arctic Council and observer states to how observer bodies’ Arctic efforts, especially in science, can be voluntarily co-ordinated to maximise results. (Paragraph 165)

16.The continued growth of international pressure for influence on the Arctic region is inevitable. The Arctic has a global importance in terms of climate, its unique environment, and its potentials as a possible world trade route and source of scarce resources, as well as including the global commons of the Arctic high seas, so the widest possible co-operation on the Arctic’s future is vital. The rest of the world has a legitimate interest in the Arctic, so while an effective Arctic Council is necessary, the Council must also be open to further co-operation beyond its own membership. (Paragraph 166)

17.Arctic fora in addition to the Arctic Council are important for building international consensus on Arctic issues, and should be encouraged. (Paragraph 177)

18.As access to at least the maritime Arctic increases and international commercial, scientific, campaigning, personal and governmental attention on the region strengthens, a significant and difficult challenge facing Arctic states and residents and non-Arctic interests will be managing global demands to either exploit or to exercise stewardship over this simultaneously inhabited and wild region and its changing environment. (Paragraph 179)

19.The Arctic will be the site of economic, geopolitical and cultural claims, conversations and disputes in the years ahead, although the risk of territorial or military conflict seems low. The UK’s interest, the global interest, and the interest of Arctic citizens will be best served by the highest possible degree of rules-based negotiation and the widest possible scope of international co-operation and consent. The UK needs to be ready to bring its influence to bear in the region where appropriate to further its own interests and those of the common good. (Paragraph 180)

Chapter 4: The impact of Arctic changes: internal pressures and opportunities within the Arctic

20.Knowledge of Arctic ecosystems, particularly marine ecosystems, is limited and in some areas severely lacking. This knowledge gap hampers our ability to understand the effects of climate change, and of human activity, on marine species in the region. (Paragraph 197)

21.Significant further research is required on Arctic ecosystems as a matter of priority. Research collaboration and knowledge sharing is essential to this mission. Understanding the systems that stand to be affected by increased human interventions in the Arctic environment is vital to making policy decisions about what interventions can be made with an acceptable level of risk or damage to Arctic biological diversity. A precautionary approach must be pursued by commercial interests until the scientific understanding of Arctic ecosystems is sufficient to allow fully-informed decision making. (Paragraph 198)

22.The challenges and changes facing the Arctic are international in nature and there is a strong case for greater international co-operation and communication on Arctic research to be promoted. The UK has existing strengths in collaborative science and research, and should seek to play a role in bringing Arctic scientific communities together. In addition, the Government should support research funders such as the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in promoting international collaboration and networking when awarding funding to UK Arctic scientists. (Paragraph 209)

23.It is likely that different types of relationship and collaboration will be appropriate for different circumstances. The Government and NERC should examine the role that bilateral relationships could play in enhancing co-operation with Russian researchers and scientists. (Paragraph 210)

24.All Arctic states should work to ensure that Permanent Participants are allowed to undertake their work without undue restrictions and limitations. We support the view that Permanent Participants, representing indigenous peoples, should enjoy full and effective involvement in the Arctic Council and in other bodies that affect their lives and interests. (Paragraph 222)

25.Indigenous groups have played an important role in the work of the Arctic Council to date. The recognition and status afforded to the six Permanent Participants within the Council is to be commended. (Paragraph 228)

26.It is clear to us, however, that the expansion in the workload of the Council poses challenges to full participation by indigenous representatives. The Arctic Council should make appropriate structural and financial provision to allow full and effective participation by indigenous representatives. We also believe that the UK Government should continue actively to support the right of Permanent Participants to participate effectively within the Arctic Council. (Paragraph 229)

27.States with observer status at the Arctic Council should work to build the capacity of indigenous groups participating in the work of the Council. We recommend that the Government consider further how observer states, including the UK, might act to support the work of the Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat. Such support could include the provision of training and scholarships through the UK’s academic institutions, and secondments to and from its public bodies. (Paragraph 236)

28.The UK is home to world-class climate and social sciences research which could assist and enhance the capacity of Arctic indigenous peoples to respond to changes in their region. The Government, along with research funders such as the Natural Environment Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, should consider how this research can be made available and accessible to Arctic indigenous communities, and how this sector in the UK could further benefit from strengthening its relationships with indigenous communities in the Arctic. (Paragraph 237)

Chapter 5: The impact of Arctic changes: pressures and opportunities arising from increasing external access to the Arctic

29.There is a significant history of economic and commercial development in the Arctic. Further development is inevitable, but will need to be balanced and achieved in tandem with actions to limit environmental damage and preserve biodiversity. To achieve that, further advancements in understanding of the environmental and social consequences of change will need to be made at a rate that keeps ahead of development. The UK can play a significant role in developing the scientific knowledge and understanding required to inform policy decisions. (Paragraph 255)

30.In addition, the UK’s research and technology strengths can be used to develop new techniques and approaches for undertaking developments in sensitive climates; its significant financial and insurance sectors also have a role to play in ensuring that only sustainable business developments are pursued in the Arctic. (Paragraph 256)

31.We urge the Government to consider how the UK’s expertise can be used to maximum advantage in pursuing balanced and responsible economic development in the Arctic. (Paragraph 257)

32.Given the relatively high costs of hydrocarbon extraction in the Arctic, and current low global energy prices, there may be limited potential for new Arctic oil and gas production in the short to medium term. This may offer a window of opportunity for taking stock and gaining increased clarity on whether oil and gas extraction in ice-affected Arctic waters can be achieved safely and responsibly and, if so, how. (Paragraph 277)

33.Maximum advantage needs to be taken of this ‘breathing space’ to establish whether it is possible to reach a point where it is categorically clear that the risks of a major spill are acceptably low and that the damage caused by a major spill could be contained. This should also provide an opportunity to improve wider understanding of the impacts of oil spills in ice-affected waters and to consider whether any international standards on where drilling can be undertaken in relation to ice can be agreed.(Paragraph 278)

34.The UK has significant technological and research expertise in oil spill responses, and operations in harsh environments; the Government should work, with UK Trade & Investment, research funders and others, to ensure that the UK is in a position to make a strong contribution to this work. (Paragraph 279)

35.To protect Arctic species, indigenous livelihoods and tourism, as well as to ensure that the UK remains a respected partner in Arctic operations, UK companies engaged in mining operations in the Arctic—at all levels of operation—should pursue the highest possible environmental standards of operation and remediation. They should engage proactively and effectively with local residents when developing their operations, and source as much of their labour as possible from local communities, investing in training and capacity building. We recommend that the Government encourage such high standards, and promote this sustainable approach to UK businesses in all future UKTI activities. (Paragraph 289)

36.Concerns have been expressed regarding the adequacy of the environmental provisions contained within the Polar Code. Black carbon, heavy fuel oils and discharged ballast water all pose a threat to the Arctic environment and ecosystems; these threats should be addressed as the regulatory regime concerning Arctic shipping continues to evolve. In any future discussions regarding the development or expansion of the Polar Code all Government departments should promote actively the inclusion of additional robust environmental measures. (Paragraph 319)

37.Full and rigorous implementation of the Polar Code is vital. The UK is home to a range of maritime regulation and standards interests, including the International Maritime Organisation, insurance and finance providers and classification societies, which will make an important contribution. We urge the Government, and all relevant UK interests, to pursue full implementation of the Code as a matter of urgency and, also, to consider ways in which its implementation could be monitored. (Paragraph 320)

38.In view of the rapid rise of tourism in the Arctic and particularly the prospect of large passenger ships sailing in Arctic waters, there is an urgent need to develop co-ordinated search and rescue facilities in the region. This is an immense task but it is a necessary one. While we recognise that work is being done on this, we emphasise that those involved must not wait for a major incident before developing a comprehensive strategy towards Arctic search and rescue. (Paragraph 321)

39.The UK has a recognised expertise in search and rescue and the Government should give urgent attention to developing a pan-Arctic search and rescue strategy along with the Arctic states. (Paragraph 323)

40.We believe that consideration should be given to whether the Arctic maritime tourism industry should be required to make a contribution to strengthening search and rescue in the region. (Paragraph 324)

41.The central Arctic Ocean is, under the provisions of UNCLOS, designated as international waters and the discussion of future ways to sustainably manage fish stocks in this area is, therefore, an international issue. We recommend that the Government seeks to promote and to play an active role in such discussions. The Government should push for real international consultation and progress on this issue well before any fishing begins. That consultation should include nearby Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, which might have a part to play. (Paragraph 332)

42.Given the current lack of understanding of Arctic marine ecosystems and their responses to climate change, we recommend that a moratorium on fishing in the high seas area of the Arctic Ocean is required, at least until a recognised management regime for the area is agreed. We recommend that the UK Government should pursue a precautionary approach in any negotiations on this matter. The Government should advocate for any future management regime to be based upon sound and responsive science. We also recommend that any future Arctic fisheries management organisation, once established, should be granted observer status on the Arctic Council. (Paragraph 333)

43.The commercial opportunities that could arise in the Arctic are significant. However, the volatility of global markets for resources, and the changing degree to which resource sources and shipping routes in other parts of the world compete with opportunities in the Arctic, suggest there will be long-term uncertainty about the extent to which Arctic potentials will be realised. At the same time, the local effects of climate change may help economic development in the Arctic, but they may also hinder it. There is therefore no straightforward correlation between climate change and the creation of real economic opportunities in the Arctic. (Paragraph 336)

44.These uncertainties reinforce the need for the UK to be fully engaged with the region, so that it can maximise any opportunities that arise, and also be vigilant about potential challenges and risks. (Paragraph 337)

45.These uncertainties also, however, provide one particularly important opportunity: for international knowledge and understanding of the vulnerable Arctic environment to get ahead of further substantial human interventions. Any substantial interventions must be informed by that knowledge, so that any harm they might cause can be judged and minimised. (Paragraph 338)

46.As international engagement with the Arctic intensifies, the Government should work to ensure that the UK, as a near Arctic state, takes a leading role in this work. (Paragraph 339)

Chapter 6: The UK and the Arctic

47.The breadth of the UK’s interests in the Arctic demonstrates the importance of this region to the UK. While we commend the work that the Polar Regions Department (PRD) has done to date to articulate and pursue the UK’s Arctic interests, the speed of change in the region and the emerging opportunities and challenges mean that British engagement with the region now needs to intensify. (Paragraph 351)

48.British policies towards the Arctic have to date been more reactive than proactive. The UK’s approach needs to be more strategic, better co-ordinated, and more self-confident and proactive, or the UK risks being outmanoeuvred by other states with less experience in the Arctic but a more positive and forward-looking engagement. (Paragraph 352)

49.By dint of its combination of Arctic proximity, history, skills, knowledge and research, its competitive advantage in applicable business sectors, and its own international standing, the UK should be positioned as the premier partner for Arctic states and other interests in Arctic co-operation: the Government should adopt this as its ambition in Arctic affairs. (Paragraph 353)

50.We recommend that discussions be initiated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), involving the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and the UK Research Councils, with a view to establishing a substantial long-term programme of Arctic research and fully effective representation on Arctic Council bodies. Relevant partners from industry and technology developers and appropriate NGOs should be fully consulted and involved in the programme. (Paragraph 385)

51.The UK can and should be more active in Arctic affairs. Our view is 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. (Paragraph 390)

52.As the Arctic grows in importance, the resourcing and possibly the organisational location of the PRD may need to be reviewed. (Paragraph 394)

53.While we appreciate the PRD’s sensitivity to ensuring value for money in the representation of the Government and UK Arctic research in Arctic fora, our view is 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. (Paragraph 400)

54.The UK Parliament should also make a contribution to representing the UK in Arctic fora: we recommend that the House of Lords and House of Commons should ensure that UK Parliamentarians regularly attend the Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region as observers. (Paragraph 401)

55.The UK must become more effective in communicating its connections to the Arctic and its strengths in knowledge, skills and businesses with relevance to the Arctic, and what it offers to the Arctic as a near Arctic state. (Paragraph 403)

56.The Government’s 2013 Arctic Policy Framework was a good first step. However, in the quickly changing context of Arctic co-operation it now seems too hesitant and cautious. Other Arctic Council observer states are assertive about their interests in the Arctic and the UK should be too. The Government should commission a new version of the document within the next year. The new version should be bolder in presenting the UK as a premier partner in the Arctic. (Paragraph 407)

57.The UK’s boosted focus on and enthusiasm for engagement in the Arctic should be reflected by upgrading the revised document to an Arctic ‘strategy’; in our view this would in no way diminish the Government’s proper respect for the primacy of Arctic states and residents. (Paragraph 408)

58.The Arctic strategy should be updated at least every five years, and more often if the rapid pace of change in the Arctic demands. (Paragraph 410)

59.We recommend that the Government should write to the Chairman of the House of Lords Liaison Committee (which recommended the establishment of this ad hoc Committee) to update the House on the progress that has been made between a year and 18 months after the publication of the Government’s response. (Paragraph 413)

60.We further recommend that the Minister responsible for the Polar Regions should write to the Chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee at least annually, updating that Committee on the progress of Arctic co-operation and the UK’s contribution to it through all Government departments, sections of the FCO and Government-funded work. (Paragraph 414)

61.The UK should continue to look for opportunities to strengthen its bilateral relationships with the eight Arctic states, and to build bilateral links related to the Arctic with other Arctic Council observer states, in order to make progress on Arctic science and policy issues and look for efficiencies. For example, the UK should explore whether it might be helpful to invite observer states without Svalbard research bases (such as Singapore) to use British scientific resources at Ny-Ålesund in order to enhance its relationships with those states, and possibly share burdens. The UK Arctic Ambassador would be well-placed to look for such opportunities. (Paragraph 416)

62.Given the increasing importance of the Arctic region and the UK’s interests in the Antarctic, the Ministry of Defence should maintain and develop its cold-weather operational capabilities, expertise and resources. (Paragraph 427)

63.The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review must give urgent consideration to reintroducing a maritime patrol capability for the UK. This is needed for both defence and search and rescue operations. (Paragraph 428)

64.The UK higher education sector could further build on its Arctic strengths by building up courses and offering international scholarships at all levels in Arctic science, technology, geology, engineering, social sciences, health and mental health and strengthening its academic collaborations with Arctic states and other Arctic observer states such as Singapore and Japan, and with Arctic academic institutions such as the University Centre in Svalbard. (Paragraph 435)

65.The UK’s existing world-class museum and cultural sector should build further connections and collaborations with similar institutions in the Arctic region. There is already impressive evidence of collaboration within the UK, but this could be expanded upon as part of the enhancement of UK soft power. (Paragraph 436)

66.The UK should be making use of its expertise in areas such as hydrography, weather and ice prediction in its relationships with the Arctic states through the Arctic Council and other Arctic fora in order to ensure that the UK is considered a primary partner in the Arctic, earning the UK both influence and commercial benefits in the region. The Government should support the UK Hydrographic Office in developing the links required to work effectively with partners in Arctic states, in order that it is able to respond to demand for new charting of Arctic waters. (Paragraph 437)

67.The UK is the Arctic’s nearest neighbour and the Arctic is the UK’s neighbourhood: the Government must invest in this relationship to reap benefits for the UK and for international common interests. (Paragraph 446)