UK needs an ambassador to the Arctic to shape its future, say Lords

Peers dismissed the government’s approach to preserving the endangered Arctic Circle as 'too hesitant and cautious'

Tom Bawden
Friday 27 February 2015 02:52
Melting ice could open up new fishing opportunities
Melting ice could open up new fishing opportunities

The UK needs to “up its game” in the battle to save the Arctic and should start by appointing an ambassador to the region, according to a critical report from the House of Lords.

Peers dismissed the government’s approach to preserving the endangered Arctic Circle as “too hesitant and cautious”. They argued that as one of the region’s closest neighbours, Britain has a particular responsibility to shape the debate about its future.

“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,” said Lord Teverson, chairman of the House of Lords Arctic Committee.

The UK should follow the lead of “competitor nations” such as France and Japan and appoint an ambassador, he said. This would enable the UK to co-ordinate its Arctic policy, help it to take constructive steps to preserve the region as well as helping to champion its interests there, in areas such as fossil fuel extraction and new shipping routes.

“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 said.

Environmentally, the committee is particularly concerned about the impact of melting ice on fishing. It says that fish will migrate, opening up fishing opportunities in previously inaccessible areas, leading to 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.

It recommends that the UK government plays an active role, ensuring that a management regime is based on sound science to prevent the risk of overfishing.

The Artic holds huge reserves of oil and gas but the peers point out that these are difficult, costly and potentially environmentally dangerous to extract. International standards on where drilling can be undertaken in relation to sea ice must be seriously considered, the committee said.

It paid tribute to the UK’s “long and successful” history of engagement with the Arctic, saying that it had made a valuable contribution to the science.

However, the government also needs to “substantially increase” funding for British Arctic science.

“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 feedback loops.”

The report 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.”

A Government spokesman said: “The Government welcomes the useful and timely report into the changes in the Arctic and the implications for the UK.

“It is carefully considering the findings and recommendations made by the committee and will formally respond in due course.”

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