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Arctic Ambassador: Appointment

Volume 632: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the appointment of an Arctic ambassador.

It is an immense pleasure—indeed, an honour—to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I welcome the Minister. He indicated that this might be his first Westminster Hall debate in his present post, so I congratulate him on that.

I am delighted to introduce this debate on an issue that is close to my heart. Scotland is the Arctic’s closest neighbour, and the potential for collaboration and mutual learning between us is significant. That is why I have championed closer political engagement with the Arctic countries for some time. As a member of the all-party parliamentary group on polar regions, I want to take this opportunity to credit the APPG for its work in this regard.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about the APPG on polar regions, which I have the great honour of chairing. It covers both polar regions—the Antarctic and the Arctic—so will he explain why this debate is about an ambassador only to the Arctic? Surely, if we were to have an ambassador or a special envoy, they should be for both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

The chairman of the APPG makes a valid point. However, as I will reveal, the proximity of the Arctic to Scotland makes Arctic issues much more relevant to our Government in Edinburgh and to our interests. I recognise, however, that the Antarctic plays a significant role overall and has similar issues, especially with regard to climate change and the environment, as the hon. Gentleman alludes to.

I thank Members who supported my recent early-day motion calling for the UK Government to appoint an Arctic ambassador. The reasons for my pursuit of this matter are manifold. Climate change is one of the greatest threats we face. As we know, its impact is felt most keenly in the Arctic north, where the melting of sea ice is accelerating at an alarming rate. In summer 2016, we saw the second lowest minimum ice extent on record in the Arctic ocean. The melt season has been lengthening, too. For example, the duration of ice-free conditions between the East Siberian sea and the western Beaufort sea increased by nearly three months between 1979 and 2012.

We must not underestimate the impact of what is happening in the High North and its inevitable effects on the rest of the world. Geographically, Scotland is the Arctic’s closest non-Arctic neighbour; the northernmost part of Scotland is closer to the Arctic than to London. I was delighted to be able to attend the Arctic Circle forum last week in Edinburgh, which was co-hosted by the Scottish Government. The forum served as a platform to spell out the plethora of ways in which Scotland can work with our Arctic partners for mutual benefit. Our geographical similarities and our shared challenges in areas such as the environment, living in remote communities, fisheries, planning and tourism were all brought to the fore. We also share many cultural and historical ties. For example, the twinning arrangement between my home town, Dunfermline, and Trondheim in Norway was the first in Europe. Our links go back a long way.

I will focus on the following areas of mutual interest between us and our Arctic neighbours, although this list is far from exhaustive: energy, transport, tourism, design and innovation, and defence. Energy is an area in which Scots have much to offer. The development of renewable energy in Scotland is forging ahead, and the capacity of renewables is set to increase. The world’s first ever floating wind farm was recently launched in Scotland, demonstrating our innovative approach to renewables on a global stage. At the Arctic Circle forum last week, we heard from Neil Kermode, managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre, who recounted Orkney’s renewables success story. Those islands have been producing more than 100% of their energy from renewables since 2013, and one household in 10 generates its own power.

Will my hon. Friend join me in acknowledging the fantastic contribution from Heriot-Watt University in my constituency to the development of renewable technology in the Orkney Islands?

Exactly; I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that intervention. I will mention later the collaboration that we seek with all academic institutions. All the universities in Scotland were represented at the conference last week.

Given that the majority of policy areas related to the Arctic and the High North, and to the boundaries with the United Kingdom, are predominantly devolved to our Parliament in Holyrood, does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be more joint work and collaboration, and that the United Kingdom Government need to recognise the expertise in Holyrood and in the Scottish Government?

My hon. Friend makes a really valid point. During the independence referendum, Scotland was asked to lead the UK, not leave the UK. That kind of argument makes it important that Scotland’s position and expertise, and the valuable contribution we can make to Arctic issues, are brought to the fore.

Orkney also has the highest uptake of electric cars in the UK. There are clearly lessons to be learned across borders in a region with some of the greatest potential for renewable energy in the world.

Although we are making huge leaps in harnessing wind and tidal power in Scotland, we still mainly use fossil fuels to heat our homes and businesses. Many other, more niche renewable energy sources, such as geothermal, can be exploited. Geothermal energy is already being used to heat homes in parts of Glasgow, which begs the question, how can that be expanded to other areas? That takes me to Iceland, which is a world leader in geothermal power. Where better than our near neighbours to seek guidance on further developing that form of energy in Scotland?

As sea ice coverage in the Arctic reduces, opportunities might open up for new global trade shipping routes, and those could be supported by Scottish ports. The Northern Isles, the Western Isles, the Moray firth and my home port of Rosyth are some of the locations identified as potential stop-offs for such shipping. To prepare ourselves to ensure that we have the capacity to exploit those opportunities, we must consider what investment is needed in new port infrastructure. The Scottish Government are already investing in land-based shipping infrastructure; national planning framework 3 considers opportunities for new and expanded ports at Scapa Flow, Stornoway, Shetland and the Moray firth. The hub port of Finnafjord in Iceland has undergone a transformation in recent years to enable it to take full advantage of new shipping routes opening up across the region, so we can look there for inspiration.

We also have great potential to attract the cruise industry to the north. Scotland is well placed to embrace the economic opportunities presented by that expanding global market; it already attracts 45% of passenger day calls across the UK. At the Arctic Circle forum last week, we heard from Domagoj Baresic, a polar research and policy initiative fellow at University College London, who believes that Scotland could become a hub for the cruise liner industry. Let us not allow that golden opportunity to pass us by.

Besides attracting cruise liners to Scotland’s coast, there are plentiful opportunities for smaller-scale blue growth through marine and coastal tourism. At the Arctic Circle forum, Giancarlo Fedeli spoke about the success of his Cool Route project, a sailing route with more than 300 stops along the coasts of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Faroe Islands and Norway. That cleverly mapped-out route has the benefit of sustaining small coastal enterprises, often in remote communities, and helping them to extend their market reach. Cool Route has been ranked the No. 1 most adventurous cruising route in the world.

To give another example, North Coast 500 in the Scottish highlands successfully attracts tourism to remote areas. However, that project has taught us a valuable lesson: maintaining the integrity of our natural resources is part of the challenge of sustainable tourism. Iceland has that particularly in mind, given the rising popularity of its stunning Blue Lagoon as a tourist hotspot. Like Iceland, Scotland is home to some of the world’s most beautiful scenery and natural wonders, which attract millions of visitors to our shores every year. We must ensure that those valued resources are protected so that they can continue to be enjoyed by Scots and tourists alike for generations to come.

The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. I, too, am a Scot, and of course Scotland has a great deal to offer both the north and the south and elsewhere. I am puzzled, however, by his logic as to why Scotland having nice scenery should somehow or other lead to the conclusion that there should be an Arctic ambassador—which, after all, is what the debate is about.

I think it fits perfectly. There is a need for an Arctic ambassador—I will cover other areas in my speech. It is crucial that we make these links and have these friendships and collaborative projects across the whole of the Arctic. I know the hon. Gentleman has a wide range of interests, so I ask him to open his mind to the possibilities if we were to have an Arctic ambassador fighting for the UK and for Scotland over a wider range of issues.

We must ensure that all our resources are protected so that they can continue to be enjoyed by Scots and visitors alike. That is why the Scottish tourism agency signed a memorandum of understanding with Iceland’s tourism board last year. There is room for wider collaboration across the Arctic region on marine and coastal tourism. It is in our stewardship and sometimes our care for sensitive areas that Scotland can influence others.

An area of a mutual interest between the UK and the Arctic that does not spring immediately to mind is social policy. That said, I was hugely impressed by the Arctic conference and the innovative ways in which some speakers identified collaborative approaches towards things such as health, housing and planning. I was blown away by the cutting-edge approach taken by Lucy Fraser of Albyn Housing Society and Matt Stevenson of Carbon Dynamic towards health and housing in the context of Scotland’s ageing population. They have been working together on a project to design high-tech, low-energy adaptable housing units complete with state-of-the-art wellness sensors that can monitor a resident’s health and potentially predict changes—for example, falls—before they happen. Already, they are collaborating with northern universities on artificial intelligence used in the oil industry to help to develop their design. Their vision of Scotland as a global leader in predictive health is truly awe-inspiring. Again, to answer the point made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), this is about working in collaboration with other Arctic states, not narrowing our vision just to environmental issues.

Another pioneering initiative showcased at the Arctic Circle conference was that of Lateral North, a Glasgow-based design agency run by two creative young people who specialise in collaboration aimed at redefining Scotland’s relationship with the Arctic north and our Nordic neighbours. It uses virtual and augmented reality technology to map out ideas across areas such as town planning, tourism and shipping. A recent project saw it working with the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, engaging with indigenous communities to tackle societal challenges through urban planning, architecture and design. It sees Alaska and Scotland—the relationship between them—as the two gateways to the Arctic and the north. This is about how we can capitalise on that unique approach; it is a really inspirational project.

I appreciate that some areas I have mentioned are devolved either partly or in full. The Scottish Government deal with the devolved issues, but the major reserved area for the UK Government in terms of the Arctic is defence. The retreat of sea ice and the Arctic opens up commercial opportunities, but also increases the risk of military conflict in the region. We have seen recent submarine activity in Scottish waters, which is reaching levels beyond even what we experienced during the cold war, with Russia increasing its military footprint in the region. Members will also be aware that NATO has recently announced the formation of a new command to protect sea lines of communication between North America and Europe. That presents the UK with a unique opportunity to make representations to our NATO allies to base the new maritime command in Scotland. I call on the Minister to address that.

The Scottish Government recognise the geopolitical importance of the new north and have taken what steps they can to formalise our willingness and eagerness to work with Arctic nations. In 2014, the Scottish Government and the European Policies Research Centre hosted an international conference on regional co-operation in the Arctic. In 2016, the First Minister made a keynote speech at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik and, as I have mentioned several times, we hosted the Arctic Circle forum in Edinburgh a few weeks ago. As well as issuing a Nordic-Baltic policy statement, Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for external affairs, announced at the closing session of the conference that the Scottish Government would seek to develop a new Arctic strategy.

I warmly welcome the moves Scotland is making towards closer collaboration with our northern neighbours, given the range of devolved issues at stake. However, foreign affairs remains reserved to the UK Government. It is therefore vital that those sentiments are mirrored here in Westminster to ensure we have a consistent approach over all Arctic issues. By appointing an Arctic ambassador, the UK Government could signal their intent to work more closely with the Arctic countries on areas of mutual interest. That would also provide greater focus on British-Arctic affairs, allow for greater scrutiny and co-ordination of policy development in this area, and provide a platform for initiating trade missions to the region and work on energy projects. All that is even more important in the face of a hard Brexit, which could damage our economic links with many of our neighbours to the south. That is why now, more than ever, we should be encouraging the UK to look north.

For me, the key message of all this is one of collaboration. By working together, sharing our experiences and learning from one another, we can achieve great things. The many similarities that we in Scotland have with the countries of the Arctic make Scotland well placed to engage a multiple-level approach, but we need the UK Government to support and complement that engagement.

The appointment of an Arctic ambassador is not a novel idea: France, Japan, Poland and Singapore all have ambassadors responsible for Arctic affairs. All eight Arctic states also have Arctic ambassadors, special Arctic envoys or special representatives. The UK is clearly lagging behind in that respect. I suggest we follow the example given by the House of Lords Arctic Committee, which in 2015 recommended that the UK appoint an Arctic ambassador. I urge the Government now, at this critical time for our future relations with other nations, to take heed and give serious consideration to the appointment of an Arctic ambassador, even if that means allowing Scotland to take the lead in the UK, or for the UK, on the issue.

I thank the Minister in advance for his response, which I am sure will be well considered, and I would welcome further opportunities to discuss this matter with him in greater detail. Mr Hosie, I hope you have a wonderful day.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) for securing the debate. The United Kingdom has a long history of involvement in the Arctic. As Minister for the polar regions, I welcome this opportunity to set out the Government’s approach to the Arctic and the steps we are taking to ensure that the United Kingdom remains active and influential there. I will also respond to the specific question of whether we should appoint an Arctic ambassador, but first I will set out the context in which our Arctic policy is based and the extent of our work on the Arctic.

The Arctic is changing rapidly. The effects of climate change are perhaps more visible there than anywhere else on the planet. Temperatures there are rising twice as fast as at lower latitudes, and we are already seeing the dramatic impact of that across the northern hemisphere in a growing number of extreme weather incidents. Within the region itself, declining levels of sea ice are attracting greater economic activity. There are opportunities for the UK, but equally, we must take our obligations seriously to ensure that only responsible development takes place in the Arctic.

Our Arctic policy is set in that context of a rapidly changing climate, which means that the co-operative approach we have always taken is now all the more important. The UK has a prominent voice in all international organisations with a role in the governance of the region. We are rightly seen by the Arctic states as a reliable and pragmatic neighbour. That means working with all the countries that have a stake in the Arctic—the main eight are labelled as the Arctic states—and we do that principally through the Arctic Council, at which we have held observer status since its inception in 1996. We enjoy excellent economic ties with Arctic states, which are enhanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) in his role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the Nordic region.

A co-operative approach is the right basis for ensuring that we can continue our long record of involvement in the Arctic, particularly as more nations declare their Arctic interests. It underpins our ability to conduct pioneering scientific research and to make the most of any economic opportunities that may arise, while taking due account of our environmental responsibilities. The UK has consistently been at the forefront of international regulatory developments that aim significantly to reduce the risk of Arctic pollution. We maintained strong involvement in finalising the environmental aspects of the polar shipping code and the ongoing discussions regarding the impact of black carbon emissions on the Arctic.

A central strand of our policy is to continue to support the Arctic research of our world-renowned scientists. Only three other countries—the US, Russia and Canada—produce more Arctic science papers than the UK. The Government are supporting pioneering Arctic research in a number of ways: first, through increased diplomacy and exchanges, including recent visits to Arctic states by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s chief scientific adviser, Robin Grimes; secondly, through the strengthened Arctic science office of the Natural Environment Research Council, which is giving more support to UK Arctic science; and thirdly, through our network of science and innovation officers in our embassies in Arctic countries, who are increasing their engagement in the Arctic Council’s working groups and have helped to promote the UK’s scientific excellence in Arctic science.

As the Arctic itself is ever changing, so too must our policy adapt and change. I am therefore pleased to announce that we will renew our Arctic policy framework early next year. We intend that to be an evolution, not a revolution, and we will reaffirm our commitment to partnership and international collaboration in the Arctic. Our vision remains one of a safe and secure Arctic that is well governed in partnership with indigenous peoples and in line with international law. The new framework will remain a cross-government document and will take account of the views of the devolved Administrations. I saw the Scottish Government’s recent announcement that they intend to develop their own Arctic strategy. I trust it will be in line with the UK’s framework and focused on their areas of competence.

As I hope everyone agrees, the UK can be proud of the positive role we are playing in the Arctic. None the less, having carefully considered the arguments set out today, I do not believe that appointing an Arctic ambassador, as some countries have done, is the right approach for the UK. Given our wide diversity of interests and established engagement across the Arctic states and within the Arctic Council, we do not think that it would add value. As Minister for the polar regions, I am already supported by a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official who oversees the development and implementation of the UK’s Arctic policy framework, chairs the cross-Government Arctic network and ensures the UK has appropriate representation at the Arctic Council and other key international Arctic events.

I am not convinced that the appointment of an Arctic ambassador would add significant value to existing structures and roles or justify the additional costs involved. We believe that the existing structure of Government, working properly at official level, does the job. I hope everyone agrees that the UK has been a prominent voice in Arctic affairs for many years. The Government are determined to maintain that level of interest and influence. The arrival of new interested parties, such as Asian nations, challenges us all to ensure our voice is heard just as prominently. We will continue to make the most of new opportunities for co-operation and to encourage our scientists, businesses and non-governmental groups to continue to pursue their interests in the Arctic.

Climate change means that international co-operation will be more important than ever. We want to ensure that the Arctic remains a place of peace and stability, and we will continue to work in partnership with all of those who have interests in the Arctic region.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.