Our friends in the North: UK strategy towards the Arctic Contents

Our friends in the North: UK strategy towards the Arctic

Chapter 1: The case for scrutinising the UK’s Arctic strategy

1.The UK is not an Arctic state, but it is the region’s closest neighbour—parts of Scotland are closer to the Arctic Circle than to London. Developments in the Arctic have a direct impact on the UK, including its environment, energy supply and security. This makes it an area of particular relevance to the UK.

2.The Arctic is experiencing significant change: its physical and political geography is being reshaped by global warming, the crisis in European security caused by Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine, and the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO.

3.Global warming is causing a rapid reduction in ice coverage, potentially making the region and its resources more accessible to external actors. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has significantly reduced the prospects for multilateral co-operation with Russia, the largest Arctic state, and led the UK and its allies to re-evaluate the security threat posed by Russia, including in the Arctic and the High North.

4.The UK Government views the Arctic as an area that is critical to its interests and has articulated its approach in two policy documents:

(1)the Ministry of Defence’s The UK’s Defence Contribution in the High North, published in 20221

(2)the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s Looking North: The UK and the Arctic (the Arctic Policy Framework), published in February 20232

5.Throughout our inquiry we sought to understand the shifting geopolitical, security and environmental dynamics in the Arctic, and the implications these may have for UK interests. The aim of the report is to assess whether the UK’s Arctic policy is appropriately calibrated, and provide recommendations on how the UK can best advance its interests and those of its allies in the region.

6.This report therefore prioritises the European Arctic in conjunction with the High North, which the UK Government defines as the European territory north of the Arctic Circle, together with parts of the North Atlantic.3 This loosely defined region reflects the interconnectedness of security dynamics in the Arctic and North Atlantic.

Figure 1: Map providing a circumpolar view of the Arctic and the UK’s position

A map of the arctic ocean and showing UK's relative position to it

Source: British Antarctic Survey, 2019, from Ministry of Defence, The UK’s Defence Contribution in the High North: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1063855/The_UK_s_Defence_Contribution_in_the_High_North.pdf [accessed 1 November 2023]

Box 1: Defining the Arctic

The Arctic is not a homogenous place. It is a physically, economically, and socially diverse region, which nonetheless shares some common features and challenges.

The Arctic is a predominantly maritime region over the North Pole, partially enclosed by five littoral Arctic states: Canada, Denmark (through the dependencies of Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Norway, Russia, and the United States.4 There is no single definition of its southern boundary. Definitions of the Arctic include the area within the Arctic Circle, which lies 66° 34´ north of the equator; the area within the July 10°C isotherm, where the average temperature is below 10°C in the warmest month (July); and the area north of the Arctic treeline.

The Arctic Circle constitutes an important political boundary. Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States are considered Arctic states by virtue of having territory within the Arctic Circle and are the eight full members of the Arctic Council.

Environmental change and Arctic “opening”

7.The world’s polar regions are warming at a much faster rate than the global average. Statistics released by the Arctic Council in 2021 indicate that between 1971 and 2019 the air temperature in the Arctic rose at three times the rate of the global average.5 This phenomenon of higher-than-average increases is known as Arctic amplification. It is fed by rising surface temperatures leading to a contraction in ice and snow cover. Ice and snow typically reflect 80–90% of solar energy back into the atmosphere (the albedo effect). Low albedo, when ice and snow cover are absent, leads to a large proportion of this solar energy being absorbed into the ground or sea rather than being reflected.6

8.We heard that the volume of summer sea ice in the Arctic has contracted by over 30% in the last 30 years. Since 1979 over 90% of the old ice, ice aged five years or more, has disappeared.7 Greenland is losing 278 gigatonnes of ice per year, twice the annual loss of the previous ten years. To help visualise this quantity, a single gigatonne of ice occupying the area covered by New York’s Central Park would have a height of 341 metres. The Arctic as a whole has lost 2.5 million square kilometres of snow in recent decades.8

9.Under almost all climate scenarios, the Arctic will be virtually ice-free in summer by 2040–45.9 Witnesses emphasised that an ice-free Arctic would remain a hostile and challenging environment.10 Ice-free summers do not mean there will be no sea ice at all in the Arctic, but “it will be thin, fragile, covered by melt pools and not the kind of Arctic that we are used to seeing”.11

10.Since the polar ice cap plays a key role in the regulation of the global climate, non-Arctic states are increasingly emphasising the connections between what happens in the Arctic and the climate in their region. The Arctic has been described as the canary in the coalmine for the entire globe. We heard that climate change is internationalising the Arctic and is being used by non-Arctic states, such as China, to argue for increased involvement.12 The role of China and others is discussed in Chapter 3.

11.A more accessible Arctic may also lead to greater economic activity in the region, not just in traditional Arctic industries like fishing or oil and gas extraction, but also in the development of green technologies, such as battery production. More vessels, people, and infrastructure, however, also raise environmental and safety risks, which are compounded by a changing climate that is making the Arctic environment less predictable. This is covered in Chapter 4.

12.Climate change is also having a profound impact on indigenous peoples’ traditional lifestyles by affecting grazing and hunting grounds, reducing ice coverage in coastal areas, and causing a shift in fish stocks.

The changing geopolitics of the Arctic

13.For many years after the Cold War, the UK Government, like many of its Arctic allies, conceptualised the Arctic as a “zone of peace”, an area of low tension and exceptional co-operation.13 Given Russia’s growing military interest in the region since the early 2000s, some regard the ‘Arctic exceptionalism’ framing as “overblown”,14 yet the region had remained partially insulated from broader geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West. This changed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which has put a stop to most forms of co-operation between the Western Arctic states and Russia.

14.The most significant geopolitical shift, brought about by Russia’s war in Ukraine, has been Finland and Sweden’s decision to join NATO.15 Finland’s accession has extended NATO’s land border with Russia by 1,340km. Once Sweden’s accession is complete, all the Arctic states, excluding Russia, will be in NATO. This has consequences for NATO’s capabilities, command structure, and approach to deterrence. It requires the Alliance to develop a framework of response for deploying, operating and sustaining force in the Arctic environment.16 NATO enlargement will likely also intensify the Russian leadership’s sense of vulnerability. The security challenge posed by Russia and the potential for conflict in the Arctic are explored in Chapter 2.

Impacts on regional governance

15.From the end of the Cold War until February 2022, the seven Western Arctic states (the Arctic Seven) co-operated extensively with Russia in the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum founded in 1996 to facilitate international collaboration on polar research and environmental protection. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Arctic Seven suspended all high-level co-operation with Russia in the Arctic Council. While some co-operation has now resumed on a technical level, the prospects for the Arctic Council as a forum for circumpolar governance are uncertain. This is covered in Chapter 5.

The UK has an important role to play in the Arctic

16.Stability in the Arctic is crucial for the UK, given its geographic proximity, the strategic significance of the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap—a maritime chokepoint connecting the Arctic with the North Atlantic—and the UK’s reliance on secure access to sea lines of communication for both trade and defence.17

17.The UK’s influence in the Arctic is built on two pillars: its soft power role as a leading contributor to polar research and environmental protection, and on its hard power role as a close ally and security partner of the Arctic Seven.

18.Changes in the Arctic driven by climate change will affect the UK—be it through rising sea levels, changed weather patterns, displaced fish stocks or shifting ocean currents. UK science has a key role to play in understanding those processes and informing policy, and is highly valued.18

19.The UK is one of the few non-Arctic states that invests in the military capability to operate in the High North.19 Should a conflict emerge in the Arctic, or escalate to the Arctic, there is a high likelihood that the UK’s armed forces would be engaged.

20.Throughout the Cold War, retaining the capability to monitor the Soviet Navy’s activity in the High North, and preventing it from entering the North Atlantic in the event of a conflict, was a matter of existential importance for NATO. In the early part of the Cold War, the Royal Navy and RAF played a role in sustaining an active anti-submarine warfare capability in the GIUK gap and surrounding seas. In the last phase of the Cold War, NATO’s strategy evolved to one of forward defence in the Norwegian Sea, aimed at containing Soviet forces in the Arctic.20 Today, NATO’s maritime strategy is again focused on preventing Russia from projecting force from the High North and Arctic into the North Atlantic, and UK forces play an important part in this effort.

21.The Arctic is also key to the UK’s energy supply, with Norway being the UK’s primary gas supplier and the Arctic holding many of the critical minerals required for the UK’s green transition and its strategy to achieve net zero by 2050. In 2021, the North Sea Link—a 720km electricity interconnector between the UK and Norway—became operational.

22.The Arctic has traditionally been viewed as an area of high co-operation and low tension. The UK’s long-term goal is for the region to return to this state. It is questionable whether this is achievable. As the region pivots from an area of co-operation to one of competition and potential confrontation, the UK Government needs to make sure its strategy reflects this new reality.

Our inquiry

23.Our inquiry started on 30 March 2023 and sought to examine the implications for the UK of recent strategic developments in the Arctic region, as well as the longer-term challenges of a warming and, potentially, more accessible Arctic.

24.Two House of Commons select committees have also held inquiries into the Arctic. Between December 2022 and July 2023, the Scottish Affairs Committee looked at defence in the North Atlantic and High North from a Scottish perspective.21 Between February and October 2023, the Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research considered the UK’s role in Arctic science, the impacts of climate change, and how the UK Government can support the protection of the Arctic environment.22

25.Our inquiry was devised to be complementary to the House of Commons inquiries. While we have not looked in detail at the implications of climate change, developments in the Arctic environment caused by rapid warming provided important context.

26.We received 21 written evidence submissions and held 14 oral evidence sessions with a total of 31 witnesses from academia, think tanks, government and the private sector, providing a range of perspectives from the UK and the Arctic states. A joint submission from 46 primary school pupils collated by Dr Roger Morgan of the Pupils 2 Parliament project underlined the wide and cross-generational interest in the Arctic. We also held a private roundtable with representatives of Arctic indigenous peoples alongside the Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research. The Rt Hon James Heappey MP, the Minister for the Armed Forces, gave evidence on the UK Government’s defence policy towards the Arctic.

27.We are very grateful to all who contributed.

28.In early September 2023 a Committee delegation visited Norway and Finland and met with officials, politicians, military officers, academics and other key stakeholders, including representatives of the Sami people. We also visited the Norwegian Joint Headquarters near Bodø, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre of Northern Norway and the Arctic Council Secretariat in Tromsø.23 We are grateful to all who made these visits possible and, in particular, the Polar Regions Department at the FCDO and the UK embassies in Oslo and Helsinki.

29.In September 2023, Committee Members participated in a policy simulation set in the Arctic in 2035. The simulation was hosted by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, involved colleagues from committees of both Houses, and brought together external experts from academia, think tanks and the commercial sector. The simulation focused on a fictitious but plausible future crisis scenario in the Arctic region and enabled participants to explore and anticipate future policy questions and needs.24

1 Ministry of Defence, The UK’s Defence Contribution in the High North (March 2022): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-uks-defence-contribution-in-the-high-north [accessed 1 November 2023]

2 Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Looking North: the UK and the Arctic: The United Kingdom’s Arctic Policy Framework (February 2023): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/looking-north-the-uk-and-the-arctic [accessed 1 November 2023]. It builds on two previous iterations of the Arctic Policy Framework, published in 2013 and 2018.

4 Although Iceland has territory north of the Arctic Circle, it is generally not regarded as an Arctic Ocean littoral state as its Exclusive Economic Zone is not adjacent to the high seas portion of the central Arctic Ocean, see: The Arctic Institute, ‘Iceland Country Backgrounder’ (March 2023): https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/country-backgrounders/iceland/ [accessed 7 November 2023].

5 Q 1 (Henry Burgess); Arctic Council Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, Arctic Climate Change Update 2021: Key Trends and Impacts. Summary for Policymakers (May 2021), p 2: https://www.amap.no/documents/doc/arctic-climate-change-update-2021-key-trends-and-impacts.-summary-for-policy-makers/3508 [accessed 1 November 2023]

6 Q 1 (Henry Burgess)

7 Ibid.

8 Q 1 (Henry Burgess). See also: NASA, Visualizing the Quantities of Climate Change: Ice Sheet Loss in Greenland and Antarctica (March 2020): https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2933/visualizing-the-quantities-of-climate-change/ [accessed 1 November 2023]

9 Q 1 (Henry Burgess)

10 Q 18 (Henry Burgess)

11 Q 1 (Henry Burgess)

12 Q 2 (Prof Richard Powell)

13 Q 11 (Prof Richard Powell). In the foreword to the UK’s 2023 Arctic Policy Framework, the Rt Hon Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, then Minister of State responsible for the Polar Regions, stated that: “We have for many years committed to maintaining the Arctic as an area of high co-operation and low tension, and this remains the UK’s long-term strategic aspiration”. See: Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Looking North: the UK and the Arctic: The United Kingdom’s Arctic Policy Framework (February 2023), p 6: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/looking-north-the-uk-and-the-arctic [accessed 1 November 2023].

14 19 (Dr Duncan Depledge)

15 Finland and Sweden simultaneously applied to join NATO on 18 May 2022. Finland was formally admitted to the Alliance on 4 April 2023. Sweden’s application is awaiting ratification by Hungary and Turkey.

16 Q 51 (Mathieu Boulègue)

17 Written evidence from the RAND Corporation (ARC0008)

18 This is explored in further detail by the Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, The UK and the Arctic Environment (Sixth Report, Session 2022–23, HC 1141)

19 Q 150 (Angus Lapsley)

20 Defence Committee, On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic (Twelfth Report, Session 2017–19, HC 388)

21 Scottish Affairs Committee, Defence in Scotland: the North Atlantic and the High North (Seventh Report, Session 2022–23, HC 1576)

22 Environmental Audit Committee, The UK and the Arctic Environment (Sixth Report, Session 2022–23, HC 1141)

23 International Relations and Defence Committee, ‘Arctic Inquiry: Norway and Finland visit 4–8 September’, September 2023: https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/41558/documents/204655/default/

24 For further information on the Foreign Affairs Committee’s pilot programme of three policy simulations, see: Foreign Affairs Committee, Tilting Horizons: the Integrated Review and the Indo-Pacific (Eighth Report, Session 2022–23, HC 172). The game design and scenario for each simulation in the pilot programme were developed and delivered by Committee staff in the International Affairs and National Security Hub, in collaboration with a specialist game design company, Stone Paper Scissors.

© Parliamentary copyright 2023