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UK support for oil and gas exploitation in the Arctic incompatible

29 November 2018

In a wide-ranging new report published today following an eight-month inquiry, MPs conclude that the Government should reconsider its encouragement to UK businesses to explore oil and gas opportunities in the Arctic.

The Committee recommends that ministers should acknowledge incompatibility with climate agreements and set out plans to press members of the Arctic Council to adopt a similar approach.

  • Effects of climate change in the Arctic of global concern and global responsibility, concludes Committee
  • Arctic sea ice is at its lowest level since records began
  • Billions of plastic particles currently frozen in Arctic sea ice risk being released into the ocean
  • Government response to this urgent issue must be bolstered with measures and targets

The UK's support for exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the Arctic is incompatible with its international commitments, including the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), says the Environmental Audit Committee.

Chair's Comments

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, said:

“The Arctic is changing rapidly and warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. This brings potentially catastrophic consequences for the global climate as well as commercial opportunities and risks. If there is anywhere in the world that the principles of sustainable development should apply, it is the Arctic. The Government should start by acknowledging the incompatibility of its support for oil and gas exploitation with its climate change commitments. It can do this by setting targets in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

“With interest in the Arctic from countries as far away as China and Singapore, the UK must ensure it remains a key player in its protection. We're calling for increased funding for research and strengthening of UK emissions targets. Failing to act now would be a dereliction of a global duty.”

Today's report contains several conclusions and recommendations. In summary:

Changes in the Arctic:

The Arctic is undergoing profound environmental change from warming surface and ocean temperatures. Multiyear sea ice has been reducing for decades, and melting has accelerated since the early 2000s. It is now at its lowest level since records began and the Arctic Ocean may be ice free in the summer as soon as the 2050s, unless emissions are reduced.

The acidification and Atlantification of the Arctic Ocean are causes for significant concern as they threaten marine wildlife and global climate patterns. Additionally, one trillion plastic particles frozen into Arctic sea ice could be released into the ocean through accelerated melting. The Committee believes environmental change in the Arctic is a global concern and a global responsibility and is calling on the Government to:

  • Strengthen its emissions targets in line with its obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement and the Climate Change Act. This should include setting a net-zero target by 2050 at the very latest. While ‘known unknowns' remain, scientific research has made great strides in understanding environmental changes in the Arctic. The Government should increase funding and support to UK scientists.
  • Commit funding to research the potential consequences to human populations of loss of transport infrastructure and traditional food sources.
  • Set out a clear timeline for a comprehensive plan to reduce UK plastic pollution.
  • Set a series of adaptation targets for the next iteration of UK Arctic policy within the next twelve months.
  • Arctic weather patterns can cause extreme weather in the UK. Research being undertaken by the Met Office should feed into National Adaptation Programmes.
  • Set targets to protect Arctic biodiversity, which is crucial for ecosystems around the world in line with SDG 15.

UK Arctic research and funding:

The UK is the fourth largest producer of Arctic research papers in the world and operates an Arctic research station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. However, the Committee believes that the UK's research approach needs to evolve to reflect the complexity of social and environmental change in the Arctic. The Committee recommends:

  • UK Arctic research is world leading but it is disappointing that its infrastructure in the Arctic is modest compared to Antarctica. BEIS should significantly increase funding for Arctic research infrastructure and the Government should outline a plan for doing so.
  • The framework for Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) programmes should be expanded to provide the same level of coordinated research for other important emerging issues.
  • To remain a world-class leader in Arctic research, the UK will need to move towards a multidisciplinary approach, which includes the social sciences and brings research together from across research councils.
  • The Government should allocate specific funds for an Arctic project within UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) which would enable collaboration between the Economic and Social, Arts and Humanities and Natural Environment Research Council.
  • There is uncertainty about UK research funding post-Brexit. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office should make the case for securing funding for Arctic research to the Treasury and to BEIS. The UK should seek the current level of collaboration and coordination with the EU when negotiating its future relationship.

The UK's relationship with the Arctic:

The UK has been a State Observer to the Arctic Council, the forum for Arctic matters, since 1998. Although the UK is a long-standing Observer, the Committee heard that international interest in the Arctic brings a fresh challenge to the UK's claim as a near-Arctic state. The Committee recommends:

  • The Arctic Council is the most important international forum for Arctic matters and the UK is a long-standing Observer but should provide more clarity over its intentions over the next ten years.
  • The UK should be more transparent about its work with the Arctic Council. The significant increase in the number of State Observers to the Arctic Council since 2013 brings fresh challenge to the UK's claim as a “near Arctic State”.
  • The Government should ensure that there are UK representatives at all important Arctic science meetings and scientific forums.
  • While the Foreign and Commonwealth Office leads on coordinating Arctic policy, it has not been able to articulate the UK's position on a number of key issues affecting the Arctic which is concerning given that is represents the UK at the Arctic Council. In order to influence the Arctic Council, the UK must have a coordinated policy led by the FCO.
  • The Government further considers the recommendations by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic in 2015, and the House of Commons Defence Committee in 2018, that the UK should appoint a special representative, ambassador, or envoy to the Arctic to play a co-ordinating role, in support of the Polar Regions Department and the Minister.

Commercialisation of the Arctic:

The Committee heard that the loss of sea ice in the Arctic creates new economic and social opportunities, but that if this is not managed correctly, the consequences could be dire. Tourism and shipping in the Arctic have increased in recent years as new shipping routes open up, and the Committee is concerned that the UK Government may only be paying lip service to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, rather than using them to guide and evaluate its approach to the Arctic. The Committee recommends:

  • The UK has a responsibility to ensure that commercial opportunities are guided by the principle of sustainable development. The UK has identified three SDGs relevant to the Arctic, but the Minister for the Polar Regions was not able to explain how the SDGs applied in an Arctic context, nor how their implementation is audited.
  • Not only is exploration for oil and gas incompatible with the SDGs, it is also incompatible with the UK's commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. The Government should consider ending its encouragement of UK businesses to explore oil and gas opportunities in the Arctic.
  • As the ice melts, the opportunities for shipping increase. The Committee is concerned about the risk of oil spills, higher carbon emissions and plastic pollution. The Polar Code should be amended to deal with these risks and the threat to human and wildlife populations.
  • The Government should press the International Maritime Organisation to ban heavy fuel oils as soon as is technologically feasible, and the UK should push the IMO to designate the Arctic as a special sensitive area.
  • Arctic tourism can bring benefits if managed correctly. However, tourism can contribute to the degradation of the environment and very large cruise ships are overwhelming communities and heighten the risk of plastic pollution and rights to wildlife. The UK should work with the Arctic Council towards a ban on cruise ships carrying more than 500 passengers.

Further information

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