Skip to main content

Protecting the Arctic

Volume 558: debated on Thursday 7 February 2013

[Relevant documents: Protecting the Arctic, Second Report of the Environmental Audit Committee, HC 171, and the Government Response, HC 858.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Swire.)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I am pleased to see not only the Minister and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, but valued members of the Environmental Audit Committee who have worked hard on the report that I have the pleasure to present.

This debate is important. I thank the Liaison Committee for selecting our Committee’s report for debate, because we want to keep pressure on the Government. To echo the words of the Liaison Committee, we have a real resolve to achieve change, and we cannot think of a more fitting way to achieve change than in our work to protect the Arctic. Committee members have done lots of work on the report, including the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), who has done a lot of work on the Antarctic as well. We are a group of Members of Parliament from various parties who take the agenda seriously.

The Arctic is one of the last pristine wildernesses left on earth, but it is changing rapidly due to climate change. Last year, the Arctic sea ice melted to an unprecedented all-time low. Satellite measurements of its extent and volume showed that between 2003 and 2011, the ice volume decreased by 50%—much more than previously estimated. At that rate of decline, we will completely lose summer sea ice in the Arctic within a decade. Much scientific work is still ongoing into the matter, and we heard during our inquiry from a range of scientists. I hope that our report can serve as a textbook for many people, including in schools and universities, who are trying to understand what is happening in the Arctic.

Why does it matter for us in the UK? As we reported, the effects of climate change are already being felt in the Arctic and are likely to continue to be felt more profoundly there than perhaps anywhere else on earth. Climate change in the Arctic may affect our weather, making colder winters in the UK and northern Europe possible in future. It is worth pointing out that, although climate change and environmental issues are not at the top of everyone’s agenda, the effects of severe weather change on food production and supply and the implications for health and safety, as well as access to food, make it clear that changing weather patterns and what is happening in the Arctic affect all of us in one way or another, so we should be concerned.

The Arctic is the last outpost for a number of species with global significance, and we share much of the Arctic’s migratory biodiversity. We have a strong and well-regarded scientific community working on Arctic issues, and I believe that that gives the UK great influence. As the ice melts, shipping routes will open up through the Arctic, cutting journey times between continents. Access from Europe to the northern sea route across the north of Russia will be through the North sea.

The melting is also encouraging oil and gas drilling in the region. The UK has a large oil and gas sector, and many UK companies will undoubtedly seek to exploit the Arctic’s predicted fossil fuel reserves. London is the global finance capital and a world centre for insurance, both of which will be needed for any future development in the Arctic, which also gives us influence.

The UK is an observer at the Arctic Council, the body set up to aid co-operation in the region, and the Committee has made copies of our report available to the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council is now seen as the primary international forum for co-operation on Arctic matters. While we wait to see whether the Arctic Council will give observer status to the EU and China later this year, the UK’s long-standing role in the council gives us the scope to help shape the future of the Arctic.

We believe that that all adds up to a strong UK interest in the Arctic that, sadly, the UK Government are not embracing to the extent that we think they should; that was one of the recommendations of our report, which was timely. When we started to examine the evidence last summer, Shell was due to start drilling in the Arctic and Cairn Energy had been drilling off the coast of Greenland for a couple of years. As more ice melts year on year, we can expect many other oil companies that have invested heavily in licences to seek to start operations. That is a desperate and perverse irony: climate change is opening up the region to oil and gas exploration, which is being driven by burning oil and gas. That inconsistency needs to be examined and acted on.

The world does not need more oil and gas. There are already more proven oil and gas reserves than we can burn, while still avoiding more than a 2ºC global temperature rise. I was interested by the comments made by Professor Nicholas Stern at the Davos conference last month. He basically said that if he had realised earlier what he knows now, he would have focused more on even greater climate change targets. The International Energy Agency says that no more than one third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed before 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2ºC goal. We sought clarity from the Government on how looking for new oil and gas in the Arctic can be reconciled with commitments to limit temperature rises to 2ºC. The Government responded that the world will still need some oil and gas in the low-carbon transition, that Arctic oil will fill that gap when proven reserves are used up and that we will still keep within the 2º rise.

We heard a few weeks ago from Greenpeace and others that the Government are cherry-picking statistics from the International Energy Agency’s 2011 world energy outlook to justify their position, not least because the 2012 edition assumes a minimal Arctic oil contribution to production in 2035. Rather than the IEA’s 2011 data, what does the Minister make of its 2012 data? It is important that we have up-to-date data on which to base our evidence and policy. What does he make of the 2012 data showing that already discovered oil and gas fields will meet future demand, and what does that mean for the Government’s position on oil and gas exploration in the Arctic? He must spell that out. Whatever the arguments, it is clear that the Government are not prepared to set a global example on climate change while profits are still to be had.

In our report, we called for a moratorium on further oil and gas operations in the Arctic. From the extensive evidence that we took, it was clear to us that drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic is simply too risky at present. The Arctic, as we know, is a harsh environment in which to operate. The short Arctic summer allows only a limited window for drilling before the ice re-forms. Last year, Shell had to stop operations a day after drilling began when an iceberg encroached on its drill site.

Each phase of oil and gas development will have unavoidable impacts on ecosystems. If there is an oil spill in the Arctic, little of the spilled oil is likely to be recovered. Only 6% to 7% of the oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez incident was collected, and toxic oil is still to be found on beaches more than 20 years later. The traditional spill response techniques used around the globe have not been proven to work in the cold and remoteness of the Arctic, and we received striking evidence on that.

There are different regulatory regimes across the Arctic for oil and gas drilling, and there is no region-wide requirement to use the best and safest available technology, which is important. Given the risks, oil and gas companies should be required to drill in the best and safest way possible, regardless of cost.

We believe that much more research is needed to understand the full consequences of such techniques. On balance, and applying the precaution principle, the Committee feels that it is too soon to use geo-engineering techniques, but further research should start now. However, action to address black carbon, or soot, particles would be a quick win. Soot from industrialised countries flows north and lands on the snow and ice, hastening its melting.

Many people have given scientific evidence to our Committee, and there is an ongoing debate within the scientific community on whether there could be a geo-engineering response to what is happening, but we are absolutely clear that more research is needed.

I am pleased that the Government have gone some way towards addressing our recommendations. A strategy is needed to bring together the UK’s diverse interests in the Arctic, environmental as well as economic and diplomatic, and to engage all stakeholders. Without a strategy, there is a risk that Departments might not work in a cross-cutting way. The Government, in their response to our report, were too nervous to use the word “strategy”, preferring to call it a “policy framework”, but I am pleased that it will be developed in a consultative fashion and seek to address some of the issues that we have raised.

I am conscious that other Members wish to speak. Overall, I am disappointed that the Government have not gone further by accepting our other recommendations. As our report demonstrates, it is in all our interest that the Arctic is developed sustainably. The Arctic is too important to be left to those states that have set their economic future on the development of fossil fuels in the region. We shall not be leaving the matter with our report; we intend to return again and again to consider issues such as the amount of time that it has taken the International Maritime Organisation to introduce proper shipping policies and our calls for a moratorium on drilling. We will certainly bring Shell back before our Committee as soon as possible to talk about what went wrong with its proposed drilling operations during the winter months. Our cross-cutting Select Committee is absolutely committed to doing all it can to protect the Arctic.

Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr Sheridan, not least because I thoroughly enjoy being a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, particularly when producing our report, which is both inspiring and slightly alarming at times given our findings.

I thank virtually everyone in the room, because, in one way or another, they have contributed to my other great passion: the Antarctic. The Antarctic Bill is progressing through Parliament, and I have been greatly supported in that endeavour by a large number of my colleagues on the Environmental Audit Committee. I am grateful, too, to our Chairman for remarking on that work at the beginning of her speech.

There are some obvious differences between the Antarctic and the Arctic. One is location, and the other is that polar bears live in the Arctic and penguins live in the Antarctic. Another important difference is jurisdiction: we have jurisdiction in the Antarctic. We are part of a treaty structure, and we have taken a strong leadership role in promoting not only Britain’s interests, but those of the Antarctic through that mechanism, which, ironically, is what my Bill is all about and what the British Government’s work supports. The British Antarctic Survey does a huge amount of excellent work in logistics, science and maintaining British presence through its several bases. The recent opening of one base, Halley VI, was celebrated by a large number of people this week. We are doing a huge amount in the Antarctic, which is excellent and should be saluted and recognised.

However, jurisdiction in the Arctic is, of course, a different kettle of fish, because we are not an Arctic state. We are not on the Arctic Council, and, therefore, we are at a disadvantage when making policy statements about the Arctic. I can find nothing to disagree with in the report when it comes to the overall interest in protecting the Arctic and the danger that various measures might exacerbate the already serious threat of climate change.

The fundamental question is this: what can we do? The Government made that clear in their response to our report, which was published on 9 January. Essentially, the Government recognise the difference in jurisdiction between the Antarctic and the Arctic, and, as our Chairman mentioned, they go on to talk about a framework for the Arctic.

We must recognise our limitations, but also the challenges we need to meet to do something about them. There is another paradox, which is that Norway is an Arctic state. Many people talk about Norway’s non-membership of the European Union: Norway pays a lot of money to be involved with the European Union, and it salutes virtually all EU regulations, but it has no say. Perversely, that is the problem we have in the Arctic that, as an Arctic state, Norway does not.

I am making two points: one is about Europe and the importance of being a member of the European Union, and the second is about the Arctic and our relatively weak position in delivering some of the report’s promises and expectations.

Recognising all that, because they are statements of accepted fact, what can the Government really do? We must apply appropriate pressure. We can signal what we have already achieved in the Antarctic as an example. Do not forget that there is no exploitation in the Antarctic, which is a demilitarised zone. We agree on who owns what, and we are taking further steps to protect the Antarctic. That is British leadership at its best, and we will have to apply such leadership not directly, because of the jurisdiction problem, but collectively with others. That is the task before us. Basically, we must say to Arctic states, and to other states that have indicated their interest, that there is a problem we must work together to solve.

In summary, protecting the Antarctic is important. The problems are enormous, the threats are great and climate change must be tackled. In many ways, the report points to how that should be done. The difference between the Arctic and the Antarctic must be recognised, and we must respond in a slightly different way. I have set out my thinking along those lines, which the Minister may want to consider. I hope we can all agree that this is a working-together operation, and if British leadership can be exerted through the European Union and our other international relationships, that would be good.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael). I agree with the general drift of what he said.

This is an important report. I will not congratulate the Members of the Committee on it because that would be somewhat self-congratulatory. However, I want to put on the record my thanks and a tribute to the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), for the way in which she has led the Committee on this report and for the other work that she has done since 2010 to make the Committee’s work a success. The report highlights some important issues.

Evidence of the importance of the issues covered in the report can be seen in the fact that since the Committee first announced its inquiry, when it was regarded as an esoteric subject for investigation, it has risen a long way up the political and public policy list of concerns, both in the UK and internationally. The report combines a useful summary of the facts and issues with an outline of policy choices facing the UK, the wider world community, international networks and organisations.

Some might ask why a UK parliamentary Committee should be interested in Arctic policy, given that our country is not physically in the Arctic circle. That question was answered to some extent by the hon. Member for Stroud. Leaving aside the fact that when one represents and lives in a constituency 400 miles north of London on the east coast of Scotland, one can feel that one is in the Arctic circle, particularly at this time of the year, the UK does in many ways have a direct interest in what happens in the Arctic.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North pointed out, UK companies are increasingly involved in a big way—and potentially even more—in drilling for petroleum and gas in Arctic waters. That raises many issues about how they are controlled and managed, as they are UK-based companies. My hon. Friend also referred to migratory biodiversity. That includes birds, marine life and fish stocks. That is important to the UK’s commercial interests. There is some evidence that, as waters warm, fish stocks may move further north. There are also some suggestions that, if the thermohaline circulation were to change even in a minimal way, they might actually move south. That is an indication of how the scientific evidence is inconclusive on the effects of climate change on the Arctic. The point is that it is an area in which we have direct and immediate interests, both commercially and in our wider concerns about climate change.

I know that we are not within the Arctic circle. However, the UK is the nearest state to the Arctic of those that are not the Arctic nations. We are the furthest north, with Shetland only 400 miles from the Arctic circle, which is 1,000 miles from London. It is not that we are so far from the Arctic circle; as a state we have a direct interest in what happens in that area. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North pointed out, we in the UK have a long history of research and expertise in Arctic matters. The report showed that the Arctic community, including many of the Arctic nations, respects what UK research institutions and universities have been doing in the area over many years. We can certainly contribute to the research that is clearly needed by the expertise that we have in the UK.

As the Minister will know, the UK is a signatory to the 1920 Svalbard treaty. As such, the UK has equal right to participate in commercial activity in territories covered by that treaty within the Arctic circle. He will also know that there is an argument about whether that applies just to Svalbard and territorial waters, which is the Russian position, or to the entire exclusive economic zone, which would greatly extend the area in which the UK would have a legal right to participate, if that line were followed by the international community.

I believe the position we should support is the one taken by Norway, rather than Russia, but I am interested to know the UK position on the implications of the different interpretations of the Svalbard treaty. I make that point because it illustrates that we do have a legal and territorial interest, even within the Arctic circle itself. Above all, if we were to see the acceleration of sea ice melt, the Greenland ice cap, accelerated release of methane and other points made by my hon. Friend, the Chair, that would have major consequences for sea levels, to put it mildly, for the UK and the entire world.

These issues are, of course, linked to climate change and our report rightly underlines the importance of tackling climate change. Even if the most pessimistic forecasts for the Arctic were not to come true, there would still be major consequences, as our report points out. If the pessimistic forecasts are correct, the importance of taking action to mitigate the effects of climate change is underlined even more.

My hon. Friend, the Chair, has spoken on those points so I will not expand in any more detail. However, I do want to endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Stroud. There is a need for international action on Arctic issues. I fully accept that it is not just a question of our not having a direct sovereign interest in the Arctic areas. There is also the fact that the Arctic nations would be rightly concerned if non-Arctic nations were seen to be interfering in their national interests. Indeed, it would be counter-productive if we were seen to attempt to do that.

On the other hand, we have various obligations under international treaties, and legitimate interests under the law of the sea and conventions such as the one on migratory species. We need to be actively involved in putting forward the correct position in the international arena. I would go further. I think we should be aiming to seek some type of international regime, similar to that of the Antarctic treaty, while taking into account the real differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic.

One way to move towards that would be to try to develop the idea of an Arctic sanctuary, which has been proposed by a number of environmental organisations. That would certainly extend the area in which there was international agreement among various nations with interests in Arctic issues.

Ideally, I would like to see a move towards an Arctic treaty. I accept that the UK Government do want to pursue what might seem an unlikely international agreement. However, there is some interest, not just among some Arctic nations, in having a wider international regime. There is also a growing move internationally among many environmental organisations, NGOs, civic organisations, to put the arrangements for the Arctic on a much wider international footing. That is something that should be welcomed by the Arctic nations as it would protect their interests against activities in the Arctic that might be less beneficial than those they carry out themselves.

I ask the Minister to indicate whether the UK would be prepared to start raising in the international arena the possibility of moving towards international arrangements, such as those I have mentioned, that might lead to an Arctic sanctuary or, ultimately, an Arctic treaty. It would be a long time before that could be achieved, I am sure, but now is a good time to put it on the agenda, particularly with our friends in the European Union, but also more widely in the international arenas in which the UK participates.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I will give a very short speech, which I had not intended to make, but I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, oversaw the report and has commanded the respect of the entire Committee. She is a stellar Chair in my view.

I do not want to repeat the points that have already been made in the excellent opening remarks, other than to echo the importance of keeping in mind climate change. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) made the point well, and we have just heard about the importance of preserving fish stocks. There are many reasons that ought to be obvious, so I will not go into them.

I want to make one point. Last year, in response to questions from the Environmental Audit Committee, Shell’s head of emergency response admitted that the company had not yet costed a clean-up operation in the Arctic, leaving shareholders effectively exposed to potentially huge financial losses. As we know, a similar attitude from BP before the Deepwater Horizon disaster ended up costing the company in the region of $40 billion.

Given the huge risks, there is already an emerging view from a wide variety of sources, both in the oil industry, for example, most recently the French oil company Total, and the financial industry that supports oil industry activity, including Crédit Agricole, that oil exploration in the Arctic is too risky—effectively, that it is not supportable.

I therefore urge the Minister to take up one particularly important recommendation—I would prefer him to take up all the recommendations—to use this country’s diplomatic clout to push for Arctic states to set a much higher and preferably unlimited financial liability regime for oil and gas exploration in their national jurisdictions. That is in line with the Government’s approach to the Antarctic region, and is the bare minimum position that this country should be taking.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, for the second time this week.

I congratulate the Environmental Audit Committee on producing the report, which was not only fascinating reading but shocking. In parts, I found it enlightening, although I was already aware of some of the issues involved. The report highlights the importance of the Arctic region which is

“one of the least understood places”

on the planet, with its unique wildlife and ecosystems, and is also home to almost 10% of the world’s known conventional oil and gas resources.

Many of us have seen—I always have to get in a plug for the BBC’s natural history unit, which is based in Bristol—on the “Frozen Planet” series some of the wonders of the Arctic. Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit Svalbard as a guest of the Norwegian Government, which was incredibly eye-opening not only in understanding the geopolitics of the region and the way in which the Arctic states work together but in seeing first hand some of the effects of climate change.

Climate change is having more of an impact on the Arctic than anywhere else; the report highlights that the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet and fast approaching several tipping points, which would have worldwide ramifications. As has already been mentioned, it is deeply ironic that the climate change that is damaging the Arctic is also opening up the area for the north-west shipping routes and greater exploitation of the Arctic’s oil and gas resources, fisheries and minerals, because global warming is causing the ice cap to melt. The consequence of allowing that opening up is to accelerate the climate change that caused the ice cap to melt in the first place. This is a difficult issue to resolve, but how do we balance the need to protect the Arctic environment with the desire of the Arctic states, the oil and gas companies and others to exploit the region’s natural resources—the fossil fuels, other minerals and fisheries—and to open up new shipping routes?

In his response, I hope that the Minister will also outline what he sees as the UK’s role in the Arctic and what contribution we should make. We are not a member of the Arctic Council, but we have observer status—one of only six states to have permanent observer status—and we are a close neighbour, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) mentioned. We have a long history and strong environmental, political, economic and scientific interests in the region, so what does the Minister see as our role in future? It is worth noting as a general point that climate change poses the biggest threat to the Arctic environment, yet we are the ones causing it. We have a responsibility to deal with the issues, because the consequences will be felt globally. Climate change is caused by global factors, it is not a matter for the Arctic states alone to resolve.

I want to say a little more about the impact of climate change. The Environmental Audit Committee heard evidence that the current situation met the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s definition of “dangerous change”, and an expert witness said:

“We are going to get into a ghastly situation for the planet at some point and whether it is happening next year or it is going to take a few decades is the only question”.

Not only is the ice cap retreating, but snow cover is decreasing and there is increased precipitation, rising temperatures in the permafrost, melting glaciers and more.

The report notes evidence that climate change is

“having a profound impact on many species”,

such as polar bears, reindeer and walruses, and much of the Arctic’s biodiversity is shared with other parts of the world, including the UK. For example, 15% of the world’s migratory bird species spend their breeding season in the Arctic. Although this has not been mentioned much so far in our debate, the effect of all the changes on indigenous people is also important.

The report details some key tipping points, which are points at which rapid changes take place out of all proportion to the climate change driving them. When those points are reached, the climate change effects on the Arctic might be massively accelerated. The tipping points include the Arctic becoming ice-free in the summer within a decade or even sooner. The retreat of the ice cap, in both extent and density, is accelerating. The Arctic Methane Emergency Group reported to the Committee that

“the rate of warming of the Arctic could double or even triple, once the Arctic Ocean is ice-free in September. And it could double again, once the ocean is ice-free for half the year”.

A particularly alarming potential tipping point identified by the Committee—I admit that I was not that familiar with it previously, and I found this section of the report quite shocking—is the thawing of permafrost, which would cause the release of methane, a greenhouse gas that does not get the attention that carbon dioxide emissions do, but has a warming effect 72 times more than CO2 has over 20 years. The report acknowledges the lack of consensus on how close we are to those tipping points, but the direction of travel is not in doubt. As was noted by the Committee, geo-engineering for the Arctic does not currently offer a credible long-term solution for tackling climate change. A more realistic and lower risk intervention would be to tackle black carbon, and I hope that the Minister will say something about that in his response.

On drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic, I reiterate the Committee’s concern about what

“appears to be a lack of strategic thinking and policy coherence within Government on this issue, illustrated by its failure to demonstrate how future oil and gas extraction from the Arctic can be reconciled to commitments to limit temperature rises to 2°C.”

In their response, the Government argue that Arctic production is required to meet global demand and to provide domestic energy security. They use data from the International Energy Agency report, “World Energy Outlook 2011”, which forecasts world oil demand in 2035, which would be consistent with a 50% chance of meeting our goal of limiting the increase in average global temperature to 2°. The Government argue that the extent to which global demand outstrips supply could be met by new Arctic production capacity. We have already heard other speakers cast some doubt on whether that increased production is necessary.

In its “World Energy Outlook 2012” report, however, the IEA stated:

“In view of the technical and environmental challenges and high cost of operating in extreme weather conditions, including the problems of dealing with ice floes and shipping in water that remains frozen for much of the year, we do not expect the Arctic offshore to make a large contribution to global oil supply during the Outlook period.”

In addition, data in the same report suggest that projected oil demand in 2035 could be met entirely by currently producing, already discovered fields.

Will the Minister respond to those projections in the latest “World Energy Outlook” report? Will he also set out in more detail how the Government’s position is consistent with their decarbonisation targets and what the chances are of keeping global temperature rises below 2°C?

The Government stated in their response that they supported

“the use of the highest environmental and drilling standards in the Arctic”,

but that they were not in a position to determine what constitutes such standards, which was a matter for the countries of jurisdiction. The Government’s claim is undermined by a recent report in The Guardian, on Tuesday 15 January, which shows that they tried to water down planned EU regulations on deep-sea oil drilling. Leaked European Union documents given to The Guardian show that the Government tried to remove the proposal of several EU members to recognise an “oil spill response gap”—if adverse weather conditions make it impossible to clean up a spill, causing it to be left for weeks or months, and if this gap is too great, companies could be prevented from drilling.

There is further evidence that the UK, far from thinking that this was a matter for the countries of jurisdiction, has tried to water down EU proposals to force drilling operators to lodge their emergency response plans with Governments, which would provide greater transparency in seeing whether operators complied with Government regulations. I will be grateful if the Minister responds to that story in The Guardian and tells us whether he regards that as an accurate account of the UK’s position in the EU negotiations.

The Committee detailed key problems associated with oil and gas extraction in the Arctic that makes it particularly risky, from extreme weather conditions to lack of time to clear up an oil spill if it happens towards the end of summer drilling, or the distance and unavailability of infrastructure to manage accidents at remote Arctic drilling locations. Indeed, a review by Pew Environment Group of oil spill response in the US Arctic ocean concluded that companies were not adequately prepared for a spill in the Arctic, as has been mentioned by other speakers. Recent events suggest that the Committee is right to be concerned by the heightened risks attached to oil and gas extraction. Shell’s attempts at Arctic oil exploration, on which it has so far spent $4.5 billion, have been put on hold following a series of mishaps including its Arctic oil rig, the Kulluk, running aground off Alaska in gale-force winds on new year’s eve. On 8 January the Obama Administration launched a 60-day review into whether Shell should even be permitted to drill in the Arctic.

I turn to marine diversity in the Arctic. The other day, we debated the Antarctic Bill and the importance of establishing marine protected zones there. I very much welcome that, and we should press ahead with our efforts to establish such zones in our overseas territories around the world. I am pleased that the Government are committed to working towards a new global mechanism to regulate the conservation of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, and that they will press for a new implementing agreement under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea to deliver that. It will provide a means of establishing marine protected areas in the high seas, and presumably the future creation of offshore oil and gas no-go zones.

I led a Westminster Hall debate on preserving our marine ecosystems back in July, following an agreement at Rio+ that a decision should be taken by the UN General Assembly in 2014. It would be good to know what steps the Government have taken with others who were in favour of an agreement at Rio+, such as Brazil, Australia, the European Union, South Africa, India and the Pacific islands, to move this agenda forward, and what representations have been made to the UN General Assembly towards delivering a new implementing agreement under UNCLOS. In the meantime, will the Government revisit the Committee’s recommendation that there should be a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic until a number of reasonable conditions are met, first and foremost until the regulatory regimes of all Arctic states impose the highest available environmental standards, with the risk standard adopted as low as possible?

One of the positives that can be taken from the Government’s response is their agreement to the Committee’s recommendation to publish a policy framework for the Arctic in 2013. I appreciate their sensitivity in not describing it as a strategy, given that we have only observer status and are not an Arctic state. As part of that framework, the Committee suggested opportunities for “grand bargains” that might be explored with potential observer states, including China, on wider environmental issues. In his evidence to the Committee, the then Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), said that the Government would be pleased if more countries were granted observer status on the Arctic Council, and was not worried that this could dilute the UK’s influence. What is the Minister’s position on China’s request for observer status? Has his Department discussed with stakeholders on the council the potential for reaching “grand bargains”, if the granting of observer status could be linked to action on black carbon emissions from China?

Development of the policy framework will be overseen by the cross-Government Arctic network group. However, several concerns have been raised by non-governmental organisations working on Arctic policy about the transparency of the group, which is convened by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office bringing together key Departments to consider key Arctic issues. I urge the Minister to allow for greater public and parliamentary scrutiny of the group, to provide opportunities for NGOs to make representations to it, to require it to publish notes of its meetings, and so on.

I thank the Committee, particularly the Chair, for this debate. I hope that this is just the start of wider attention to Arctic issues. They are incredibly important not just for the UK, but for the future of our planet.

It is a great pleasure, Mr Sheridan, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. It is arctic out there in the real world, so it is topical to be discussing this matter. I thank the Environmental Audit Committee for its timely report on the Arctic, and all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate on an important, complex and emotive issue. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for orientating us to the part of the world in question by reminding us of the respective localities of polar bears and penguins.

I want to stress up front that the Government are absolutely committed to playing a constructive role in the Arctic. There is much debate, both here in Parliament and out in the wider world, on exactly what that role should be, and I want to take this opportunity to outline the Government’s views and approach before addressing the specific points raised by hon. Members.

The Arctic region has long been of strategic interest to the United Kingdom. The speed of climate change in the Arctic and the associated impacts and opportunities mean that developments in the region will increasingly affect key UK policy interests. As the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, those interests include energy security, shipping, fishing, trade, use of resources, and the environment, and many were touched on during the debate. The Government are committed to protecting and promoting them.

The Government’s approach to the Arctic, as outlined in our response to the Committee’s report, which is effectively what we are discussing, is based on respect: respect for the sovereign rights of Arctic states over their territory; respect for the rights and interests of the indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic; and respect for the environment. Sometimes it is difficult to balance all those, and some may say that we have it wrong, either generally or on specific policies. Adopting an approach to the Arctic that does not respect all three elements would be counter-productive to our influence and ultimately our interests.

Some criticism of the Government’s response has centred on lack of leadership or ambition. We must recognise that the UK is not an Arctic state or a full member of the Arctic Council, and we believe that, on the whole, leadership for the Arctic rests with the Arctic states. They are the countries with the most direct interest across the piece and the most experience of living, working and operating in the Arctic. It is they, first and foremost, whom we look to and rely on to ensure a peaceful, well-governed Arctic with a sustainable future.

The hon. Member for Bristol East asked about our vision for the Arctic, and what leadership we will provide. It is wrong to say that the UK should not, and does not show leadership on issues affecting the Arctic. No one can be in any doubt that climate change is the greatest threat facing the Arctic, and the consequences of climate change are driving the changes we are seeing there. The UK is a global leader on pressing for reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and understanding their impact. We are, therefore, leading the fight on tackling the underlying cause of the threats facing the Arctic.

Climate change is not the only issue. The UK can and does play a leading role in a wide range of international policies that could affect the Arctic. For example, we are pressing for global agreement on an implementing mechanism for designated marine protected areas in the high seas, and for reduced emissions from global shipping. The Government’s response to the Committee’s report outlines those in more detail.

It is wrong to say that we do not lead and that we have no role to play. A second central tenet of the Government’s approach to the Arctic is co-operation. The UK’s aim has always been to work closely and co-operatively with the Arctic states and others on the issues facing the Arctic. The Government are keen for the UK to continue to engage bilaterally and multilaterally with all Arctic states, supporting, politically and through the provision of science, policies that will help ensure a successful and sustainable future for the Arctic.

A point that was raised many times in the evidence to the Committee was the central role that science can play in influencing the policy of the Arctic states and the Arctic Council. The Government’s response to the Committee’s report makes it clear that the Government will continue to encourage, through the Natural Environment Research Council’s Arctic office and more broadly, scientific engagement with the work of the Arctic Council to this end.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), who chairs the Select Committee, was publicly lauded by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and clearly does a good job. She raised some important points, and I will address them in turn. The first point she wanted me to respond to was the International Energy Agency’s figures. Under the new policy scenario in its 2012 “World Energy Outlook” report, the world will consume 99.7 million barrels of oil a day in 2035, compared with 87.4 million barrels a day in 2011. Over the same period, production from existing sources of crude oil will have declined from around 65 million barrels a day to 26 million barrels a day, so new sources of oil will be needed to make up the difference. While seeking to limit emissions, we have to accept that major economic developments in parts of the world will result in greater energy use in the medium term. For example, while oil consumption is expected to fall significantly in the OECD, it will rise elsewhere, notably in India and China. What we can realistically seek to achieve is to limit the growth of emissions through international agreements, notably the United Nations framework convention on climate change, and by encouraging the increasing use of low-carbon technologies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud—I pay tribute to his work on the Antarctic Bill; I was privileged to take part in the proceedings—made valuable points about our legitimate jurisdiction in the Antarctic, in contrast to our lack of jurisdiction in the Arctic. However, he is right that we can, by using examples of best practice and leadership, show those who have a responsibility and a role in the Arctic what we are seeking to achieve in the Antarctic. That is a valuable lesson. I would say that, although the Committee’s response is critical on the whole of the Government’s response, others are not. Denmark’s Arctic ambassador, for example, thought it struck a very reasonable tone, balancing concerns against the plain facts of our status as an observer to the Council and a non-Arctic state.

My hon. Friend also asked me about the Arctic Council. The UK recognises the Arctic Council as the pre-eminent regional forum, which provides an opportunity to consider many key Arctic issues, especially those relating to the environment and sustainable development. We believe that the Arctic Council could benefit from greater participation and exchange of expertise from the UK and other state observers.

My hon. Friend also asked about science. I want to reinforce the points made by many this afternoon and particularly when evidence was given to the Committee, that science is an excellent lever for influencing the development of Arctic policies. Promoting UK science in forums such as the Arctic Council has been central to our strategy for influencing Arctic decision making and will continue to be so. That, again, reinforces my point about best practice in terms of what we are seeking to do in the Antarctic.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) asked about the Svalbard—or Spitsbergen—treaty. Just to remind hon. Members, the 1920 treaty of Paris set out the conditions under which Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard was recognised. Those include non-discrimination between the parties to the treaty and a limit on the royalties chargeable on minerals extracted. The UK is a party to that treaty. No country disputes Norwegian sovereignty in the Svalbard archipelago, although there are different interpretations of the treaty’s applicability to maritime zones surrounding Svalbard. We consider that the treaty applies to the maritime zones generated by Svalbard, but Norway disagrees. However, we support the careful stewardship that Norway exercises in protecting the Svalbard environment. There is no hydrocarbon activity currently taking place on the Svalbard continental shelf.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the UK supports the negotiation of an Arctic treaty. That would depend on the scope and objectives of any proposed treaty. Comparisons are sometimes made with the Antarctic treaty, but that treaty deals with matters of territorial sovereignty, which are not relevant in the Arctic. The United Nations convention on the law of the sea provides the framework for the international governance of the areas of the Arctic ocean beyond national jurisdiction. The Arctic states have recently, through the Arctic Council, agreed a legally binding framework on search and rescue and are negotiating on an oil spill response agreement. We believe that the international governance arrangements in the Arctic are sound, and it is the rules and policies underneath those that require greatest attention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park asked about—

I am sorry for the delay; I was trying to find the appropriate section of the report. I want to be absolutely clear: on the Svalbard treaty, is it the UK’s position that we regard it as applying to the entire exclusive economic zone on Svalbard? I am surprised if that is the case.

I repeat the salient point that I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to get at: we consider that the treaty applies to the maritime zones generated by Svalbard, but Norway disagrees.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park asked about oil spill falls. Of course, we all have sympathy; the idea of an oil spillage occurring in that part of the world—I think it has happened there—is absolutely abhorrent and has terrifying consequences for the environment. However, determining how to ensure that those liable in the case of oil spills meet their liabilities, as he will well know, is a matter for the relevant countries. It is a matter for those jurisdictions to determine both the scope of such liabilities and the levels of compensation and penalties payable in the event of a spill.

I recognise the limits of our international clout in respect of that issue, but it is nevertheless possible and reasonable to imagine the British Government adopting as their formal position the view that there should be, preferably, unlimited liability in the event of an accident. I am not suggesting that we can push a button and make it happen, but it could certainly be our position, formally and on the record.

I do not think my hon. Friend would be arguing for that, seeing as the Government are limited in their jurisdiction in the area, and seeing as they do not own any oil companies exploring in the area. For the British Government to make a unilateral proclamation about unlimited liability in that area would be seen by some as somewhat condescending and interfering. However, clearly, environmental protection should be at the forefront. That is why a lot of British companies—in terms of deep sea drilling, and the kind of measures and safety measures that we have learnt over years in the North sea—could have a very real application to safe drilling in that sensitive part of the world.

The hon. Member for Bristol East asked a technical question about the threat of methane released from permafrost. Continued warming of Arctic land masses will lead to a large-scale melting of permafrost, which may well release large quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Although the magnitude of any release is uncertain, it has potential to significantly accelerate global warming. While the amount of methane currently being released is small compared with other sources, that contained below permafrost and land ice is thought to be huge. The Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme is looking at methane release in the Arctic as part of its Task Force on Short-Lived Climate Forcers.

The hon. Lady also asked how serious black carbon is in the Arctic. It is definitely an issue for consideration. The United Nations Environment Programme report into black carbon produced last year concluded that emissions of black carbon particles into the atmosphere can have a significant impact on human health and both direct and indirect climate impacts. For example, some emissions can be transported long distances and deposited as soot on Arctic ice or snow, which decreases surface reflectivity—albedo—and increases ice melt because of the additional warming effect. The Arctic Council’s AMAP produced a report in November 2011 on the effects of black carbon and has a task force that is following up that work. It is currently drawing up its work programme.

The hon. Lady also asked about the report in The Guardian, the issue of higher standards for drilling in the Arctic, and the allegation in that report that we are in some way undermining the EU’s attempts to apply them in our own backyard. All I will say is that she should not believe everything she reads in the papers, let alone The Guardian. However, negotiations are continuing with the EU on the proposed directive to regulate offshore oil and gas activities, and the UK is working to ensure that the highest levels of safety and environmental protection are upheld in an effective manner. It is worth saying that the UK already has a robust regime in place to regulate offshore oil and gas. Environmental safety is paramount, and offshore operations are only permitted in the UK where there is a thorough and comprehensive oil spill response plan in place.

The hon. Lady asked what more we are doing to move forward marine protection issues at the United Nations. I will write to her on that point and provide an update. She also asked about the Arctic policy framework. We will produce the Arctic policy framework in the summer of 2013. That will be a dynamic process involving interested stakeholders, and it will outline the Government’s policy and approach in more detail.

The hon. Lady also asked how the UK’s influence in the Arctic Council would be affected if observer status is granted to applicant countries. We do not believe that the UK’s influence will be impacted. Most of our influence on the council comes through scientific engagement with the working groups. We will continue to provide that, regardless of the status of other countries with respect to the Arctic Council.

The Minister may be about to answer this question, but I specifically asked about the UK’s attitude towards China being given observer status and whether we would welcome that.

The hon. Lady is right in saying that I am about to come to that. The Arctic Council has articulated a range of criteria against which state observers will be assessed. The UK considers that it fully meets all those criteria and has demonstrated its commitment to engaging with the Arctic Council since it was formed in 1996. The UK understands the Arctic Council’s desire to set such criteria, but encourages the Arctic Council to support applicant states to meet the requirements. In the view of the UK, there are likely to be benefits for the Arctic states in engaging constructively with all states that express an interest in Arctic affairs. That said, it is obviously a matter for the individual applicant countries and the members of the Arctic council as to whether they will achieve permanent observer status next year.

I think that I have now dealt with all the questions other than the one about which I shall write to the hon. Lady. The debate has been interesting and informative. I again thank the Select Committee for its report. I hope that, in the light of what I have said this afternoon, it will look again at the Government’s response and recognise the limits of what we can do, as opposed to what we are doing in the Antarctic. I fully agree that we are doing many good things in the Antarctic that have read-across to what other states are doing in the Arctic. Yet again, Britain is leading the way.

I hope that this afternoon’s brief but important debate, with contributions from members of the Select Committee, who are clearly well informed and committed, will demonstrate, not least to the Minister, our determination to ensure that our report “Protecting the Arctic” is able to do just that. In the contribution of the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), it was very clear that he sees leadership as a way of making progress. I say to the Minister that the aim was to get this issue on to the Government’s radar this afternoon. Yes, we never do as much as we can do, and we can never achieve everything all the time, but we hope that this debate has demonstrated to the Government that we can go much further on protecting the Arctic, and that we can get the issue on to the agenda of many nation states.

I agree that it is not for us to say what should or should not be done, but we need to find collaborative ways of working—ways of working together, in partnership —and we all need to show leadership on this most complex issue to ensure that the challenges that we face on climate change and environmental protection are met. Keeping this pristine part of the world in that condition for the benefit of future generations is so important. I would therefore like to think that, when the Government come to produce the Arctic policy framework—whether a strategy or not—we will have contributed to that in some way.

The detailed points that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) made about the importance of a sanctuary and the Government’s acting on that are very important. I also flag up the point that was made about insurance liability. It might well be that even if the Government will not at this stage make it clear to British companies wanting to operate in the Arctic that they would expect all kinds of commitments about liability and so on, investors out there, who will be investing in some of the work, will take the message in our report very seriously indeed.

Although I can accept the Government’s point of view that clearly we cannot take all the decisions unilaterally, we should at least be discussing this matter. We are major participants, in terms of commercial activity, in drilling in the Arctic area. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that the Government should at least ensure that these discussions are on the table, so that we can protect this environment in the way that she points out?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In conclusion, I simply say to the Minister that there will be opportunities as we follow up our report. We will return to some of the scientific issues, and to Shell’s position as soon as it is legally able to give evidence to the Select Committee. We shall be in correspondence with the Government on this issue and ensuring, in the light of the recent recommendations from the Liaison Committee, that we are not just producing a report and leaving it on a table to make no difference whatever. If there is anything we can do, we shall do it. We are going to take the whole debate forward. Thank you, Mr Sheridan, for the opportunity briefly to air this important report this afternoon in Parliament.