Britain lacking direction in Arctic, MPs find

The UK is well positioned to serve the region’s needs, but London must assert national leadership and formulate clear goals, lawmakers urge.

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The British Arctic-research station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. (British Antarctic Survey)

Despite historic ties to the Arctic and a geographic proximity that makes it a self-described “near-Arctic neighbour,” Britain is at risk of being overtaken in the region as other non-Arctic states step-up their investment and research activities, members of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee have warned.

Although Britain’s scientific and security communities are increasingly concerned with the Arctic, policy makers are not sufficiently focused on Arctic policies, and that could be bad for the UK and for the Arctic region itself, the committee suggested in findings released yesterday of how Britain is addressing the rapid changes facing the region.

Turning the situation around, according to the committee, will require increased funding for research, a greater focus on the social issues facing Arctic peoples and, not least, better coordination of Britain’s Arctic initiatives.

The culmination of an eight-month inquiry, the review determined that better coordination was necessary after finding that the foreign ministry, which is currently responsible for Arctic policy, was “not able to articulate the UK’s position on a number of matters relating to the Arctic.”

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The committee further suggested that Britain draw up a clear position on what it hopes to gain as an Arctic Council observer, both for its own benefit, but also for the benefit of the council itself as it draws up its own plan for the development of the organization in the coming years.

Still, the apparent lack of direction at the highest level belies what the committee found to be robust national research activity and commendable political initiatives that will benefit the region’s environment, in particular a national plan to address plastic pollution.

But as more countries express an interest in the region, Britain can only keep its leading position if it changes its approach to focus on a wider diversity of disciplines that includes economics, the social sciences and the arts.

More funding for research in these areas, the committee believes, will allow Britain to aide Northern communities to as they adapt to their changing environments.

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And while the committee welcomed a change in British policy that now saw it emphasize “sustainable”, rather than “responsible,” development in the Arctic, it expressed concern that any such efforts were being undermined by continued support for oil and gas drilling in the region.

This, the committee frets, is a sign that the UK “may only be paying lip service” to its pursuit of UN sustainability goals for the region.

Instead, the committee called for Britain to stop encouraging companies to drill in the Arctic, while also encouraging support for a raft of conservation initiatives that include an expansion of the Polar Code, a set of shipping regulations, as well as a ban on heavy fuel oils in the Arctic, something promoted by health experts and conservationists.

The committee would also like to see Britain work with the Arctic Council and indigenous groups on efforts to develop “acceptable” tourism that allows communities to benefit economically, without having other forms of economic activity disrupted, or leading to environmental degradation.