Polar Notes

Nov 2023

Polar Note: The Environmental Audit Select Committee’s Inquiry ‘Britain and the Arctic.’

By James Gray MP, Chair of APPG Polar and of EAC Polar Sub-Committee

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee, through its Sub-Committee on Polar Research, has spent some nine months hearing from many different Polar voices, organisations and institutions as part of an Inquiry into the UK’s relationship with the Arctic. We launched our wide ranging and in-depth Report at the Arctic Circle Assembly at Reykjavik in late October.

The Arctic is at the forefront of global environmental concerns. The United Kingdom, being the nearest non-Arctic state, has a historic relationship and ever-increasing reliance on the region. As the report highlights “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic”. The EAC report provides a comprehensive look at the UK’s place as one of the largest contributors of Arctic research, the changing geopolitics and access in the regions and the implications of Arctic climate change for the UK.

Select Committees (and their sub committees) are comprised of Members of Parliament from all political parties and are one of the main ways that they ‘hold Government to account’. Their role is to scrutinise government policies and decisions, ensure transparency, and promote accountability.

Select Committee Reports are very influential, not least because the Government are required to respond in detail to the Committee’s findings within two months of the report being published.

Key findings from EAC Arctic Report:

‘What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.’

The impacts of climate change in the Arctic are felt across the UK - in our weather, our security and in the geopolitics of the North Atlantic and Scandinavia. We recognise the importance of the Region to the UK and our diplomatic, political, commercial and research investment should reflect it.

The Government’s approach is disjointed

There are currently five Ministers, some part of whose role includes the Arctic. Yet the Ministers for the Foreign Office, Science and Technology, Transport, Defence and Energy & Net Zero have never met to discuss the UK’s role in the Arctic. That means that the UK lacks a coherent approach to the Region.

The report recommends a regular meeting of the five Ministers to discuss the region and the UK’s long term strategic goals and projects across the North. A second recommendation is the appointment of a Polar Envoy or Special Representative to be a figurehead for the Government on all Arctic matters.  

Geopolitics in the region impacts science

The key change in the Arctic over the past 18 months, apart from the climate, has been the geopolitical situation. Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the Arctic exceptionalism that had protected and promoted collaborative approaches to scientific research, fishing quotas, search and rescue operations and many other regional, cross border projects, has ended.

The loss of access to Russian researchers and institutions, as well to the 52% of the Arctic landmass that sits within Russia, is a significant blow to Arctic and global science. In the current geopolitical climate, there can be no return to that ‘age of exceptionalism.’  However, the change does need to be recognised and understood when looking at how to improve UK research funding in the region.

UK punches above its weight but needs more coordination

The UK’s Institutions produce the fourth largest number of academic papers on the Arctic, despite having a much lower budget than other similar nations, and UK institutions are exceptionally well regarded as a result. However, there is a lack of coordination and cohesion provided by UKRI and NERC when it comes to bringing Arctic projects and programmes together.

NERC does not have an ‘Arctic research strategy’ document or anything similar, which sets out the parameters of research or which allocates funding on a hierarchy of importance. We were impressed by the cohesion and collaboration offered by the FRAM centre in Tromsø for all Norwegian Arctic Research. One of the report’s recommendations is that the Government, UKRI and NERC should explore options for further coordination, through a dedicated institute or body to provide strategic coordination of UK Arctic science.

More international collaboration

International collaboration is vital to ensure accurate and effective science since Arctic infrastructure and logistics are so expensive. Despite our excellent traditions of working collaboratively the UK can do much more.

Our Arctic research station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, should be helping UK institutions to access and work in facilities across other Arctic countries. As part of the long-term research strategy that the Committee recommends, the Government should include its approach to international collaboration, and how it will coordinate investment in research capability and infrastructure with like-minded countries.

The UK and Arctic fishing

Some of the key evidence the Committee heard was how the effects of climate change are altering the composition of marine ecosystems in the Arctic. Fish stocks are becoming more widely distributed as Arctic species move further north to colder water. These changes offer opportunities for UK fisheries and ultimately UK consumers of fish. But these opportunities must only be pursued if it can be shown that they do not undermine the interests of indigenous peoples or the environment. The Committee heard evidence from several sources that many Arctic fish species are already in decline as a result of environmental change.

The Polar Code: A Force for Good

Ships play a huge role in Arctic logistics. Due to the limited air infrastructure and weather conditions, ships continue to connect communities, bringing in large numbers of tourists and providing access to both ocean and land resources.

We strongly support strengthening the Polar Code to minimise safety and pollution risks from shipping in the Arctic. The Government must continue to use its position at the IMO to push for the Polar Code not only to be strengthened to include a wider range of vessels, but also to be implemented and monitored effectively. "The Government should ensure that all UK businesses with Arctic maritime interests and UK registered vessels visiting the Arctic region are Polar Code compliant.”


I am particularly proud of this report, which reflects the broad range of witnesses, indigenous peoples and experts who delivered evidence to the Committee. It also reflects the dedicated efforts of all those working for and with the Environmental Audit Select Committee.

I have been very pleased with the reception we have received from the UK’s scientific community, from other Arctic Nations and I look forward to hearing the Government’s response to the many points raised. I hope that this report will push the Government to further value the Arctic as a region that significantly impacts the UK and will encourage them to provide greater and more coherent support to UK Institutions and organisations so they can continue to deliver world class services and research.