Polar Notes

Dec 2018

The UK and the Changing Arctic

Last month, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (which includes James Gray MP, Chairman of the APPG for the Polar Regions) released its report on The Changing Arctic. It is the second Select Committee report to be published by the House of Commons this year, following the Defence Committee’s On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic report (a report that James Gray initiated when he sat on the Defence Committee and Dr Duncan Depledge served as special adviser to). While the Defence Committee took a hard-nosed look at the geopolitical and security implications of a changing Arctic, the Environment Audit Committee investigated the environmental and social changes happening in the Arctic, and how they might affect the UK.  

The headline conclusion from the report was that the British Government should reconsider its encouragement to UK businesses to explore oil and gas opportunities in the Arctic. It has been the long-standing position of the Government that Arctic oil and gas development has a part to play in international energy security, despite the questions that have been raised – including by the Environmental Audit Committee in its first report on the Arctic in 2013 – about whether such a policy is compatible with the UK’s commitments to tackle climate change and help create sustainable communities at home and abroad (most recently in the form of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals).  

Another major conclusion was that the Government needed to do more to address plastic pollution in the Arctic (a topic the APPG for the Polar Regions addressed in May 2018), particularly since plastic waste from the UK is part of the problem. The Committee concluded there was a need to introduce effective plastic reduction policies, building on the ban on the manufacture and sale of microplastics that was implemented earlier this year. It also asked the Government to do more to contribute to beach clean-ups in the Arctic.  

Cutting across both of the above concerns, and indeed other issues relating to the effects of Arctic weather patterns on the UK, changes to Arctic biodiversity and the social and economic impacts of the changes underway in the Arctic, the Committee called on the Government to make more funding available for Arctic research and scientific infrastructure. The UK is already a world leader when it comes to Arctic research, much of which has fed into work conducted by the UN and the Arctic Council. However, there are many issues such as land ice melt, permafrost thaw, vegetation change and land-sea-air interactions where the UK has more to offer. The Committee also recommended that specific funds should be allocated to support greater interdisciplinary collaboration between the physical and social sciences (the latter has received far less Government funding than its counterpart over the past decade).  

Drawing these conclusions together, the Committee identified a significant opportunity for the UK to show greater international leadership in Arctic affairs, despite not being an Arctic state and growing interest from other countries outside the Arctic (particularly in Asia). Leading the way on tackling climate change, and offering support and advice on adaptation policy to help Arctic communities become more sustainable and more resilient, underpinned by world-class physical and social science research, are all avenues through which the UK can contribute to its overall policy goal of ensuring the changing Arctic remains peaceful and stable, while maximizing opportunities for British stakeholders.  

The full report from the Environmental Audit Committee is available on its website. The Government is expected to respond to the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations in January 2019