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New Polar Research Sub-Committee explores UK’s relationship to Arctic environment

21 February 2023

The Environmental Audit Committee’s newly-formed Polar Research Sub-Committee today announces it will look into the UK’s relationship with the Arctic and its environment.

The Sub-committee

The Sub-Committee’s first inquiry will explore three broad aspects of this relationship: the moral imperative to protect the delicate Arctic environment, the ramifications of the exploitation of the Arctic for its resources, and the UK’s leadership role in Arctic science.

The inquiry will look at the UK’s duty to minimise damage to the vulnerable region, underlining the need for the UK Government to ensure that the rights and livelihoods of around 4 million Arctic inhabitants are protected, plastic and other waste levels are reduced, and air and water quality and the wider environment preserved.

Profound changes are taking place in the Arctic and Antarctic as a result of climate change. The Arctic is warming almost twice as fast as the global average, and it is predicted that by 2060 the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free during the summer.

MPs will examine whether exploitation of the Arctic’s resources can be legitimate if done sustainably. Also under scrutiny will be the risk of leaving the region’s minerals, oil and gas, fisheries, tourism and maritime and commercial opportunities to less responsible exploiters, if UK interests stay away.

The UK’s leadership role in Arctic science will also be scrutinised. The UK ranks second in the world for volume of peer-reviewed Arctic research, and the UK’s leadership role in tackling the region’s climate change-related challenges through its contribution to scientific research is widely recognised.

This is supported by UK Government funding: UK Research & Innovation recently announced £670m in funding for research in both polar regions, including £290m for modernisations to the UK’s Antarctic and Arctic research facilities.

Another topic for the Sub-Committee’s inquiry will be Arctic geopolitics. Much Arctic research has been conducted from Russian territory due to its 15,000-mile Arctic coastline, often in collaboration with UK universities and the British Antarctic Survey. 

Collaborative research with Russian institutions has been disrupted as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Sub-Committee will be keen to consider the ramifications for Arctic science, as well as for the operation of environmental protection and remediation protocols which had relied on Russian cooperation.

Chair's quote

Polar Research Sub-Committee Chair, James Gray MP, said:

“There are no places on Earth with greater potential to chart the course of our planet and species than the Arctic and Antarctic. Any preparation for these changes requires thorough understanding, and so this new Sub-Committee will be seeking to map out our future approach in relation to the Polar Regions, beginning with the Arctic.

“This Sub-Committee is asking what the consequences may be for the UK of the observed climatic and environmental changes in the Arctic, what form the UK’s strategic Arctic and military interests ought to take, and what impact these may have on the area. We will also be looking at how the UK’s science leadership role in the Arctic can be supported, and the impact on scientific cooperation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“During our inquiry we will be considering these issues with experts before putting our findings to Government. I welcome anyone with views on the UK’s relationship to the Arctic and its environment to get in touch with the Sub-Committee.”

Terms of reference

Please note that the deadline for submitting written evidence has been amended.

The Committee invites written submissions addressing any or all of the issues raised in the following terms of reference, by 5.00pm on Thursday 20 April 2023.

The inquiry will consider:

1. The Arctic environment

  • What are the consequences for the UK of the observed climatic and environmental changes in the Arctic?
  • What are the observable realities of ice decline for biodiversity, air quality, sea level changes, permafrost melt and levels of methane?

2. The UK’s Arctic interests

  • What use do UK businesses (oil, minerals, fisheries, tourism, shipping) make of the Arctic as a whole, and how may that use develop in coming years, especially as the ice recedes?
  • What are the risks to the climate and the environment of current business trends, especially extractive industries, in the Arctic?
  • What is the UK’s military interest in the Arctic and what effect might that have on the environment?

3. The UK’s contribution to the Arctic through scientific research

  • What are the benefits for the UK of support for Arctic research activity?
  • What more could the UK do to improve or increase its contribution to Arctic science?
  • How do the findings of scientific research into the Arctic’s climate and environment inform the UK’s Arctic policy?
  • What are the implications for UK Arctic research of the UK Government’s new Arctic policy framework?
  • How can future Arctic research in UK institutions be supported so as to maintain and enhance the UK’s leadership in Arctic science?
  • What factors govern the commissioning of Arctic research programmes in UK scientific institutions, and to what extent are the outputs of such programmes used in contributions to multilateral scientific assessments such as the IPCC?
  • What research activities concerning the climate and environment ought to be eligible for UK support through the NERC?
  • Has the UK’s departure from the EU had an impact on UK research in the Arctic? Has there been any impact on agreements on international cooperation, joint research projects and access to funding streams such as Horizon Europe?
  • What impact has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had on Arctic scientific cooperation? Has the conflict had an impact on UK research capacity in the Arctic?
  • What impact has the effective suspension of the Arctic Council had on environmental science and environmental protection?
  • What role is there for the UK to assist in Arctic scientific co-operation while the Arctic Council is in abeyance?

4. The UK’s contribution to the Arctic through diplomacy and military support

  • What role does the UK have in international circles which support the stability of the Arctic environment: diplomacy, the law and insurance, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Maritime Organization?
  • What role could the UK play in reviving or replacing the Arctic Council?
  • How can the UK increase its visible presence and influence in the Arctic in support of activities which protect the Arctic environment?

Further information

Image: PC