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UK should appoint an Ambassador for the Arctic to position itself as premier partner in the region

The UK – the northernmost country below the Arctic Circle – needs to up its game or risk being ‘outmanoeuvred' in the region by other states, says the House of Lords Arctic Committee in a report published today. The Committee concludes that the UK should follow the example of nations including France, Singapore and Japan in appointing an Ambassador for the Arctic.

The Committee's report, Responding to a changing Arctic, concludes that momentous and unprecedented change is underway in the Arctic, with temperatures there rising twice as fast as the world average. This will have a massive impact on the region's environment, ecosystems and people and presents both huge challenges and opportunities.

The Committee says the UK has a long and successful history of engagement with the Arctic as its ‘closest neighbour' but concludes that the Government's approach, exemplified by its 2013 Arctic Policy Framework, is too hesitant and cautious. Other countries are assertive about their interests in the Arctic and the UK should be too. The first step to achieving this should be the appointment of a UK Ambassador for the Arctic, to ensure the UK maintains its influence in this important and rapidly changing part of the world.

The report points out that as sea ice declines in the Arctic and fish migrate north, it is likely that new fishing opportunities will open up in areas that were previously inaccessible, with the alarming prospect of uncontrolled fishing in international waters. The Committee calls for a moratorium on fishing in the high seas area of the central Arctic Ocean, at least until a recognised management regime for the area is agreed. They recommend that the UK Government plays an active role, ensuring that a management regime is based on sound science to prevent the risk of over-fishing.

The report makes recommendations in a range of areas including:

  • It is estimated that 30% of the world's undiscovered, recoverable gas and 13% of undiscovered, recoverable oil supplies are located in the Arctic. These resources, however, will be difficult and costly to extract. The recent fall in world energy prices provides a window of opportunity for thorough examination of whether oil and gas extraction can be done safely and responsibly in ice-affected Arctic waters, and for considering whether any international standards on where drilling can be undertaken in relation to sea ice can be agreed.
  • The Committee concludes that, in light of the situation in Ukraine, Russia's foreign policy has become increasingly difficult to predict. The Committee cannot be confident that peaceful co-operation in the Arctic will continue indefinitely, but states that 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.
  • The Committee concludes that it is a question of ‘when', rather than ‘if', the Arctic will be substantially free of sea ice in the summer.
  • The Government should urgently make a commitment to substantially increase funding for British Arctic science through the Research Councils.
  • The Committee highlights the alarming prospect of additional global warming arising from the release of methane from the Arctic seabed and melting permafrost, and other disturbing climate feedback loops. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) should ensure this issue is considered as a part of a dedicated Arctic research programme.
  • The EU should be granted observer status at the Arctic Council as the case for its inclusion is ‘overwhelming'.

Commenting Lord Teverson, Chairman of the Committee, said:

“The Arctic is changing in front of our eyes. That change is momentous and unprecedented. It will bring both difficulties and opportunities and it is vital that the UK takes this challenge seriously and is able to respond to it – indeed, is positioned as the premier partner for Arctic states and other interests in Arctic co-operation as that change happens.

“We should move to appoint an Ambassador for the Arctic as soon as possible. Our competitor nations including France and Japan already have one and we risk losing influence in the region if we do not. Two key roles for the Ambassador would be to co-ordinate UK Arctic policy across Government and to champion UK interests in the Arctic. 

“We also have serious concerns about the potential opening up of fishing in the central Arctic Ocean caused by a reduction in sea ice. We are calling for a ban on fishing there at least until more research is undertaken and we have a better understanding of the eco-systems that will be affected. We need to get a proper management regime in place for the central Arctic Ocean now, before the area is opened to the risk of over-fishing.”

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