The report, ‘Responding to a Changing Arctic’, states that without a specific Arctic representative, the UK is in danger of being ‘outmanoeuvred’ in the region by countries that do have them, leaving it powerless both in promoting its own interests in the Arctic (in sectors such as fossil fuel extraction and new shipping routes) and in decisions about conserving the region.
It criticises the UK’s recent attempts at engagement with the region as being too hesitant and cautious, stating: ‘the UK’s approach needs to be more strategic, better coordinated and more self-confident and proactive, or the UK risks being outmanoeuvred by other states with less experience in the Arctic.’
‘The Arctic is changing in front of our eyes. That change is momentous and unprecedented,’ declared Lord Teverson, chairman of the House of Lords Arctic Committee. ‘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.’
Competitor nations such as France and Japan have already appointed Arctic ambassadors and in May 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry will take chair of the Arctic Council, which co-ordinates policy in the region, for a two-year term, in what is expected to be a focused tackling on halting climate change and protecting the region, in line with recent US environmental policy. The UK, it is argued, needs to stamp its authority on the region now to avoid being marginalised in future.
‘The degree to which climate change in the Arctic will create other economic opportunities – such as shorter shipping routes – is not yet clear, but the UK must position itself as a premier partner in the Arctic so it can respond to these changes effectively,’ the report stressed.
While the report paid tribute to the UK’s ‘long and successful’ history of engagement with the Arctic – making a valuable contribution to the science – it stated that now the UK government needed to ‘substantially increase’ funding for British Arctic science due to the ‘momentous and unprecedented’ change that is afflicting the region.
The report highlights two key areas where the UK’s interest in the region’s immediate future must lie – fishing and fossil fuel extraction.
It 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 established, to avoid the ‘alarming prospect of uncontrolled fishing in international waters’ as melting ice causes fish to migrate to previously inaccessible areas. The report recommends that the UK government plays an active role in fishing policy in the region.
In terms of fossil fuel extraction, it states that although the Arctic offers huge potential through its mammoth reserves of oil and gas, international standards on where drilling can be undertaken in relation to sea ice must be seriously considered, as extracting these resources can be difficult, costly and fraught with potential for environmental damage. It also advises that oil firms should reconsider their plans for operations with the region.
The report states that the current drop in oil price should be seen as an opportunity to investigate whether fossil fuels can be safely extracted from the region, but it wishes to highlight ‘the alarming prospect of additional global warming arising from the release of methane from the Arctic seabed and melting permafrost, and other disturbing feedback loops.’
The report also argued that the UK needed to take a more proactive interest in the Arctic now, as recent events have raised worries about the unpredictably of Russia’s foreign policy, so there is no certainty that peaceful cooperation in the region will continue indefinitely.
‘Every effort should be made to insulate Arctic cooperation from geopolitical tensions arising in other parts of the world because there is a global interest in protecting this unusually vulnerable environment,’ it asserted.
A spokesman for the UK Government went on record to say that it ‘[welcomes] the useful and timely report into the changes in the Arctic and the implications for the UK’ and that it is ‘carefully considering the findings and recommendations made by the committee and will formally respond in due course.’