Motion to Take Note
My Lords, we are the Arctic’s nearest state, other than the eight members of the Arctic Council—I will talk about that organisation later. In fact, Out Stack in Shetland is only 320 miles from the Arctic Circle. The committee sees this report as a wake-up call not just for Parliament but, in particular, for the Government about the United Kingdom’s role in the Arctic and our policies towards it.
I assure noble Lords that your colleagues spent some time up in the Arctic Circle. We were very pleased to visit Svalbard, which is only 800 miles from the North Pole. Your Lordships will be pleased to know that it was in September and it was not too cold at the time. We managed to avoid the attentions of the wildlife in Spitsbergen, I am particularly delighted to say. It was insisted on that we were accompanied by armed guards while we were out on field studies there. In fact, the university there offered what were known as welfare rifles, in case we should come across some of the native fauna. Perhaps that is a phrase that the rifle association in America could use.
I was also very privileged to join a parliamentary delegation of the Arctic Council in the Yukon, on behalf of the Lord Speaker. That was a lesson to us about the Arctic as a whole. Its size is immense: Arctic Russia is the largest area belonging to a nation state in the Arctic, but the Yukon is only one—in fact, it is the smallest—of three Canadian provinces in the far north. Its size is twice that of the United Kingdom, but its population is pretty well the same as that of my nearest town, St Austell in Cornwall: 37,000 people, of whom 28,000 live in the one city of Whitehorse, where the conference was held. It is an immense place and one that is very empty. Altogether in the Arctic there are about 4 million inhabitants, most of them in the Russian Federation, and half a million of them are indigenous tribes and populations—First Nation Indian, including all the different ethnic groups that there are around the Arctic.
The big issue in the Arctic and why that wake-up call is important is of course that of a changing climate. The committee did not get into why the climate is changing—we did not see that as part of our remit; it was perhaps rather too contentious a subject—but what is true is that the climate is changing. The average temperature has increased by 1.5 degrees centrigrade since the period 1961 to 1990, and the climate is warming at something like double the rate of temperate areas such as ours. Sea ice has halved over the past two decades in terms of area, but in terms of volume it has decreased by 75%. That difference is because, when the sea ice re-forms and is just one-year sea ice, it is much thinner, so that whole area is changing. Noble Lords will understand that melting water from the ice cap itself does not affect ocean volumes or depths, or rising sea levels; they cancel each other out. But should the Greenland ice shelf melt, we will have a sea rise of some 7 metres, or 23 feet. So again this is an important area for the United Kingdom; whatever happens in the Arctic affects the United Kingdom directly.
The governance of the Arctic is in many ways in some of the safest hands there are globally. The Arctic Council is made up of eight member states, three of them not with boundaries on the Arctic Sea and five with boundaries. The council was formed in 1996 and has grown in that time in authority and organisation, getting a secretariat that works between meetings. While we were undertaking our study, the Canadians held the chairmanship of the Arctic Council and that is now the role of the United States. We welcome very much the fact that in the Arctic region there is the rule of law, not just through the Arctic Council but through other conventions—particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea—and those are areas of law by which all those nations around it abide. All the very high-profile claims on land and sea in the Arctic are based on the international convention. We welcome that very much.
The Arctic Council itself, of which the United Kingdom is one of the original observer states, is changing. We welcome one of the changes, in that it is starting to have enforceable conventions itself—one on oil spills, and another on search and rescue—showing strength of agreement and working between nations. But the other area of change is that the number of observer states is increasing greatly, so the United Kingdom is a smaller part of the whole. What is particularly interesting is who the new observer states are; they are India, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy. The point is that the Asian states, the big growth states of the world, are taking an increasingly important interest and involvement in the Arctic, and we should make sure that we are not marginalised.
The committee believes that we also have an important role as a country in terms of the indigenous people, in that perhaps a by-product of the increase in observer states is the fact that the permanent representatives to the Arctic Council from each of the indigenous peoples have been marginalised in their influence. Can the UK take a role in making sure that indigenous peoples and their permanent representatives on the Arctic Council continue and increase their role in decision-making? We were particularly concerned that certain groups, primarily those from the Russian Federation, often found it very difficult to get to Arctic Council meetings, partly because of distance and communications but also because of a lack of finance. We would like to think that the UK could help in that area as well.
On the subject of Russia, two major things happened while our Select Committee was taking evidence. One of those was the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea, and the other was the big fall in oil prices. The Crimea situation clearly changed many of the relationships among the nations of the Arctic Council. Canada took quite an aggressive stance on that move—rightly, to my mind—but it meant that some aspects of Arctic Council business became a little more difficult. However, one key thing that we say in the report is that, despite the issues around the international legality of certain actions of the Russian Federation, we must make sure as an international community that we can isolate to some degree the co-operation on science and search and rescue, as well as other areas, that take place in the Arctic area.
Our knowledge of the Arctic is severely wanting. We did not manage to get to the research station in Spitsbergen because the weather was inclement, but we had a videoconference. A large amount of research, which is reasonably co-ordinated, is taking place there, but that does not mean that we fully understand the Arctic, its ecosystems, its environment and its future. In fact, there are huge gaps in our knowledge. Therefore, one of the main areas we concentrated our report on was increased scientific research. I very much welcome the Government’s response in terms of scientific programmes to ensure that we play a bigger role in that area. We do not understand the ecology of the sea there, we do not understand the effects of permafrost, in particular, and we do not understand the risks of fisheries as the Arctic becomes more commercially exploitable. That is why we suggest very strongly that there should be a moratorium on fisheries until we understand that area of the ecosystem far better.
In terms of the environment and commercial exploitation, there is not going to be a scramble for the Arctic immediately. The costs, the distances, the remoteness and the ice still mean that commercial exploitation and use of the region is a little way off, but it is starting. This gives us an opportunity to manage that exploitation and to get the conventions into place now. That is the priority, and it is one on which the United Kingdom can help. For shipping, the north-west passage will not be the motorway of the north for many years. However, the lack of hydrographic mapping of all those areas means the risks of oil spills and search and rescue needs are high. Shell has this year withdrawn from exploring in Arctic waters, which gives us a gap and gives the international community an opportunity to lay down strong rules around oil exploration, particularly that there should be no exploration where there is sea ice. We believe that a moratorium on fisheries is important.
What about the UK’s role? We believe very strongly that the UK should keep the leading role it has had historically, but it will be displaced by other parts of the world, particularly Asian nations and the Arctic states, if we do not ensure that we are a major player within the Arctic Council. I am pleased that the Government have said that they will make sure they always have representation at political meetings of the Arctic Council. Will the Minister say at what level that representation will be?
We feel most of all that, like France, Poland, Singapore and many other countries, the UK should have an ambassador for the Arctic—not someone with a desk and a satellite phone at the North Pole, but someone with a scientific and diplomatic background who can co-ordinate the various areas in which Britain should be involved and in which it should be seen as a major player. The Government’s response said that they believe the UK’s Arctic policy is right and that it is,
“based on respect; cooperation; and leadership”.
I completely agree with those three words, but I would like them to become “leadership, respect and co-operation”. I beg to move.
My Lords, I came to the committee’s work part way through when I replaced a member of the committee. Despite the fact that I was there for only part of the time, I learned a great deal. It was one of the most informative committees I have had the good fortune to be on.
The chairman has set out extremely well the grounds that the report covers. It illuminates the state of affairs and the policies that are being pursued in a part of the globe that, frankly, does not get a great deal of attention in its own right. I thank the committee staff and the clerks for the way in which they helped us in our deliberations and calls for evidence, and I thank the chairman for the way in which he led our deliberations.
Testimony to the quality of the report came from a surprising source—well, perhaps not surprising but certainly unexpected. I was asked not long ago to speak at a meeting in Helsinki about the Arctic. I was the only non-Arctic state speaker. It was quite obvious that I was there because of the committee’s report, which it was clear the participants had read and considered to be a well-balanced, positive and helpful contribution. They very much welcomed the fact that attention had been paid to the issues that concerned them. If I detected anything that was less than totally positive, it was that they wished not that the quality or direction of the UK’s policy would change but that it would do more. We are viewed as one of the most positive and active of the non-Arctic state contributors. Nevertheless, the fact that we are regarded so well means that people would certainly like to see more from us.
Our chairman has given the House a good conspectus of the ground that we covered, which was quite extensive. It included economic development, fishing, hydrocarbon exploration, indigenous peoples and so on, and I am sure that other members of the committee will speak on those aspects with rather greater authority than me. I just want to make a couple of observations about the committee’s work before I say something about science, about which I very much agree with what the chairman has just said.
One of the things I would say about the Arctic is that the way it has developed up to now has often been the outcome of policies that have been pursued without necessarily any regard to their effects on the Arctic region, or alternatively have been pursued for their own ends with sometimes unwanted effects on the Arctic. It is quite obvious that climate change falls into that category. People did not really talk about climate change because of its effects in the Arctic; the Arctic, on the other hand, has been the taker of quite a lot of those effects, and we need to be careful that we do not allow that situation, with changing water and so on, to have damaging effects that go wider than the Arctic itself, quite apart from what is happening there.
There is also the fact that policies pursued for other reasons produce cross-currents and tensions in the Arctic itself. Take some of the aspects of economic development done without necessarily reflecting on the effects on the ecosystems and the ecology of the area. Similarly, one could point to things such as the ban on seal culling. No doubt that was done for good reasons and with laudable values but it has an effect on the indigenous inhabitants and their culture, and indeed on their way of life and prosperity, since seals are something that they used to sell. We need to think rather more widely about whether it is right to deprive people of traditional ways of life, and indeed we need to offer them a say in such decisions, which certainly they did not have in this case.
Obviously the Arctic is not going to stand still. I am not suggesting at all that it should not have further economic development, and it will certainly be greatly changed if and when the two sea passages—the north-east passage and the north-west passage—ever become high roads for international shipping. We took a great deal of evidence showing that that is not an immediate prospect for all sorts of reasons, including the difficulty of ensuring safety. There is only a small number of ships in the world that are equipped to sail into such waters. Nevertheless, there will be further development.
The implication that follows from what I have just said is that it is very important in future to consider the Arctic in its own right. It ought to be the case that when one talks about a policy, the effects in the Arctic should feature. I therefore welcome, as the chairman did, the Government’s commitment to attend future meetings of the Arctic Council at political level. I am as curious as he is to know precisely what that means—what level of person one can expect to attend. Does it mean that we will get occasional Ministers? I would also like to ask for reassurance from the Government that in future, when thinking about, say, shipping policy or climate change, the effects on the Arctic are embedded in the policy-making process and are not something that come as an afterthought or a side-consideration, possibly when something unwanted and undesirable has happened. So let us try, if we can, to get the Arctic further into the centre of policy-making.
My second brief comment is on Russia. Our chairman has mentioned some of the issues that we dealt with, and the Russian ambassador has written to him about the report in a letter which I must say I regard as largely positive. There is more than a hint in the letter that the committee failed to take into account Russia’s extensive interests and the contribution that she makes to Arctic issues. I say to the Russian ambassador that it is a pity that he did not take up the offer of giving evidence; the report is poorer for not having a Russian input. We need to be careful, as some commentators—not the committee—have suggested that Russian is introducing a great deal of militarisation into the Arctic area. There has certainly been military activity, but one has to realise that the Russians are the largest Arctic power, as the chairman said, and have extensive interests there. There has been a certain securitisation of their interests there, but I would not want to accuse them of militarisation.
I do not think, subject to correction from our chairman, that it is covered. However, one of the things that the report does is open up a number of areas that we could fruitfully discuss with the Russians. A great deal of additional co-operation could take place not only between Russia and the Arctic Council but between Russia and other countries that are interested in the Arctic and have knowledge of it. We could develop co-operation with the Russians in this area, and I think there is a future for such co-operation. It is a hopeful and positive sign that the Arctic Coast Guard Forum has now come into being and the Russians are included. I hope they will be very active and pursue a policy—which, certainly on the western side, we would like to see—of trying to insulate the Arctic from wider disagreements.
I am running out of time, but I want to say just one thing about our scientific effort. What really distinguishes the UK contribution, and which is distinctive in its own right, is our scientific contribution to the understanding of the Arctic. I hope very much that we can major on that area. I accept that resources are limited, and I do not expect the Government to pour a great deal more into it, but I suggest that we could make more of what we do. Majoring on an area of strength, where small increments give considerable added value, is the way to proceed. The Government made a number of suggestions, particularly regarding one of the research councils which is thinking of doing a piece on the changing Arctic Ocean. I hope very much that the Government will encourage it to do so and that some of the “options” that it lists as things that they might consider will turn into policy intentions and goals.
I agree with the chairman that the Government are missing a trick in not accepting the committee’s recommendation to have a UK ambassador for the Arctic—I do not mean someone sitting at a desk. It would help bring together the strands of what are necessarily rather disparate areas of policy; it would give focus and would give other nations a door to knock on and a telephone to call. It would help to raise our profile—we do not get as much credit for what we contribute as we could. We could blow our trumpet a little more with the help of an individual nominated to do that.
My Lords, I should like to compliment the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on his diplomatic chairing of the committee and his energy, as well as the excellent work of the staff. One of the staff members—the clerk—took the nice photograph on the front. We had a bit of a discussion about what should be on it—some people thought there should be beautiful mountains and clouds, and I said we had to have people as well.
The Select Committee report is based on much excellent expert evidence from the UK and internationally. The theme of the report is the extraordinary importance of the large changes of the Arctic environment and their impact on the globe. I am afraid that after my years of experience of these reports, I was expecting the usual “steady as you go, there’s no more money” response from the Government, so this response has been quite positive. I would give it a good alpha/beta. Departments have clearly worked together and seen the need for new approaches, even though not much extra money will be available.
The report emphasises the maximum warming of the atmosphere that occurs over the Arctic and, in one or two special areas, the Antarctic. But neither the report nor the government response pointed out the relatively recent scientific discovery as to why these temperature patterns affect the global weather patterns. Neither did they mention the conclusion of the Royal Society polar conference last year that only by a massive reduction of global emissions will the Arctic possibly be restored. Paragraph 7 of the Government’s response is certainly emphatic. A key objective is national and international polar research, which should include the excellent work done in Russia. Anyone who has visited Russian institutions knows the rigour of their science and the ferocity of their questioning. UK scientists have been visiting Russia, as has the Royal Society. The important point about this research, as explained in the Government’s response, is to measure and predict the melting of the permafrost on the polar lands of Russia, Canada and Alaska. The reason it is so serious is that as it melts, it leads to a huge release of methane. There is no precise estimate of the effect of this release on global temperature, but various approximate calculations indicate that it should be at least another degree or more.
I hope that the Minister will make it clear that the Met Office Hadley Centre, along with NERC, is collaborating with other major research centres to develop global climate models so that by the time of the next International Panel on Climate Change model in a few years’ time, there will be definite intercomparisons between the models of the global effects of the melting of the permafrost and release of the methane. You might ask: why has this not been done already? The answer is that the United States chairman of the Arctic climate impact assessment programme in 2003 stopped it being done. There was a very distinguished American scientist who said, “You shouldn’t be doing this because we don’t know enough about it”. However, the fact is that scientists have to do calculations and studies and make predictions even when things are not certain.
I was in Norway last week helping with the review of the Arctic environment research in that country, much of which, I am glad to say, was being conducted with UK institutions—a point made in the report. It was very surprising to me that there was not a strong commitment in the programme to model the melting of the permafrost. Indeed, when the media reported on our Select Committee report, they did not pick up on this either, so I am afraid that we have to be a bit boring and keep going on about it.
However, it was very gratifying to see our Norwegian colleagues planning to join the German-Russian collaboration in Arctic research. It is vital that the Government fund this urgent research programme and, as I said, there are indications in their response that they are doing so. Perhaps they will also consider practical solutions, which are not mentioned.
The Government, in paragraphs 13 to 16, respond to the Select Committee’s concern that the UK has not been as active and influential in the deliberations of the Arctic Council and its committees as other countries with observer status, such as Singapore. In fact, non-governmental organisations that have observer status, such as the UK-based ACOPS— the Advisory Committee on Protection of the Sea, which was originally set up by Lord Callaghan and of which I am president—are also active in linking UK activities with those of other countries on the Arctic Council. I believe that if we do not have an ambassador or an ambassador’s office, there should at least be a rather more positive mechanism for exchanging the activities of the various groups in the UK which participate in Arctic Council activities. At the moment there is no such organisation but I believe that it would be quite straightforward to organise.
There is also an important case for a more active role for UK diplomacy in the Arctic, and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, will talk about this. However, there is a scientific aspect that I should like to mention. The UK should work with other countries in the Arctic Council and in the EU towards the EU joining the Arctic Council, even as an observer. One might ask why the EU is not an observer. This will happen only if the EU stops trying to tell the Arctic people about their traditional customs, including the hunting of seals. In very powerful video conference evidence, the committee heard from a political representative of the Canadian Inuits. So my question to the Government is: what is the UK doing to open up this issue and to understand the complex nature of traditional activities and natural life in the Arctic?
A more immediate diplomatic issue is the future of fisheries in the Arctic, which has also been mentioned. Rightly, this concerns the UK fishing industry because of the northward movement of the fishing grounds as the sea ice melts in the summer periods. The UK is a member of international bodies such as OSPAR, which is based in London. I should like to know from the Minister what proactive ideas the Government have. The government response in paragraph 87 about the defence and marine security and associated capabilities of the UK and the Arctic is very weak, given the strong criticism that the committee heard of cutting the aircraft survey of the northern waters—a criticism made by a junior Minister, Mr Brazier. It was also made by a representative of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, who talked about the now weak air-sea research capability. Last November, the Sunday Times reported on current arguments in the MoD about buying or not buying a US aircraft system. This is a critical issue and I think that the Government need to be much stronger in this area. Much closer collaboration with other countries is needed as part of the multibillion-pound expenditure in naval ships above and below the water—to be diplomatic—that the UK is involved with.
The final paragraph of the report, paragraph 90, refers to the important role of the Hydrographic Office. That will be particularly essential in mapping the Arctic Ocean, which is rather a shallow sea often only 10 metres deep. Such mapping will be vital for the Arctic shipping route. The United Kingdom Hydrographic Office has a unique global role.
The noble Lord, Lord West, who was here earlier, commented on the nuclear environment, especially nuclear pollution. This was discussed by the committee. The UK was involved, along with NGOs such as ACOPS, but this is still a dangerous area.
My Lords, I, too, want to begin by recognising the contribution of our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who did a great job, and that of our clerk, Susannah Street, who kept us on the straight and narrow even in some rather curious and perilous places.
I will talk largely about science, but various aspects of this have been talked about already and I shall try to avoid repetition. It is important to remind colleagues that the Arctic and Antarctic are almost exact antitheses, in so far as the Antarctic is a large continental mass surrounded by ocean, and the Arctic Ocean is almost landlocked because it is surrounded by sovereign states, many of which are to a large extent covered by permanent ice and snow. As your Lordships have heard, this region is warming up and the area covered by sea ice is becoming less. It is not less every year; what one sees is a sawtooth up and down, with some years an increase and some years a decrease, but there is no doubt that the blade of the sawtooth is tilted downwards and that, on average, the sea ice is becoming less both in volume and in area. The August sea temperature in the Arctic Ocean is now about three degrees higher than it was towards the end of the last century. Basically, this reflects global climate change, with local amplifications which are not really understood—that does not mean there are not explanations, but as yet there is no full or generally accepted explanation. These changes have a series of direct consequences, both for the littoral communities and for the biota.
I suppose that a question could reasonably be asked: why should the UK be involved in Arctic science? It is not sufficient justification, although it would be a true statement, that we have a long and proud tradition of Arctic research: a combination of exploration and science work. The Arctic area is of particular interest for the reasons already touched on by several noble Lords: that it is warming several times faster than other parts of the globe and plays a key role in both ocean circulation systems and atmospheric circulation.
New science, new studies, have become feasible for the first time because of the reduction in ice area. Places can now be reached and studies carried out for longer than was previously possible. This work has the virtue of both being worthwhile science in its own right and having a great many practical applications. The warming and reduction in ice affect the flora and fauna and marine life, but, of course, open up the Arctic to much more human activity as well. Human activity in the Arctic can have implications and consequences far outside the Arctic, so it is of significance to us as well.
We all know that humans pollute. They traffic across the Arctic and they throw away waste on a large scale, be it the abandonment of old nuclear submarines or icebreakers, the domestic waste associated with onshore activity, and broad commercial activity such as drilling for oil, mining and so on. In other words, humans introduce a significant and previously unexperienced perturbation to Arctic life. If we are to study this, what we must have is some kind of baseline so we can recognise changes, and those baseline studies for the Arctic are not really there yet. That has to be one of our highest priorities because without a baseline, you do not know what is happening. If we then look at the activities being carried on by humans, we may well find that those we expected to have an effect the biota in fact have very little, whereas others produce much greater consequences than we expected.
The other general reason for the need to maintain our scientific activity has been touched on by several speakers already. We have observer status on the Arctic Council, but we can no longer take that for granted. Observer status has to be renewed periodically, but there are now many more competitors for it. Before long, the Arctic Council is going to have to wonder how many observers it can actually have.
Let us turn to what the UK has done and is still doing. I commented earlier on the UK tradition of research in the Arctic, which has been largely academic. In general in the UK, academic research is reflected in a series of individual scientific workers or groups pursuing their own chosen problems, in many cases with little coherence between different projects and very little external visibility. In the changing scenario which has already been described, that is probably not good enough, but I am glad to say that as far as the UK is concerned, things are changing. There has been a big expansion of the available informal collaborative fora, an extension of the remit of the British Antarctic Survey a few years back to include the Arctic, and the establishment by the Natural Environment Research Council of an Arctic office which happens to be located in the British Antarctic Survey, with the role of co-ordinating UK work. All this is welcome. Moreover, I understand that efforts are being made to recruit the first purpose-appointed director for the office, which is also a welcome step forward. But as has been pointed out, the Arctic is vast and there is a lot to do, so collaboration is essential. The appearance in the past couple of years of the European Union in the form of the EU-PolarNet consortium—another network that promotes and supports collaboration—is welcome.
Finally, let me turn to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. The Arctic Council has a significant interest in scientific research and related topics. Most of the practical work is done by working groups, task forces and expert groups. There are working groups on Arctic contaminants, the protection of the marine environment, and emergency prevention and response. There is a task force on scientific co-operation and expert groups on black carbon and methane. But the trouble is that UK representation on these groups has been patchy and unco-ordinated, and it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that before a meeting of one of these groups is held, a sort of round robin is sent out to parties that might be interested, asking who would like to go—“If you are not too busy; and by the way, you are going to pay your own expenses”. This is no way, frankly, to prosecute a UK Arctic research policy. We have to have a clear policy, which probably has to be developed between the Arctic office of NERC and the FCO. It has to be clear which of these fora we are going to have a regular presence in and the reason for doing so. This will help us to understand climate change. We need to understand the human impact and it is important to establish the baselines for change.
The prospects are good for higher profile, more co-ordinated UK Arctic science. As noble Lords have pointed out, there is now a forward looking NERC programme, which should help. To what extent does the Minister feel we will now be able to regularise and achieve appropriate representation on the Arctic Council’s sub-bodies?
My Lords, I begin by thanking four individuals, without whose contributions we could not have produced the report we are debating today: the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who was an outstanding chair; Susannah Street, senior clerk to the committee; Matthew Smith, who ably assisted her; and Professor Klaus Dodds, who defied many a Select Committee precedent by proving the committee right in appointing him from a strong list of original candidates. The work undertaken by this quartet was exceptional.
For the committee’s formal work, I supplemented my interests by travelling, in a personal capacity, to meet a wide range of experts in Oslo and St Petersburg on a number of occasions. My interest lay in the way in which Norway manages its relationship with Russia, what we could learn from that and, particularly, how both countries approach the development of their substantial oil and gas reserves in the Arctic. No consideration of the importance of the Arctic, seen through the prism of environmental change, global warming, scientific, political, strategic or defence policies, can be complete without a full appreciation of Russia and its objectives for the region. The current permanent secretary of the oil and gas ministry in Oslo, Elisabeth Berge, highlighted the truism that you can never sweepingly describe the Arctic in general terms—the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, has just made the same point. The Arctic is exceptionally diverse: although parts are covered by ice, other Arctic oil and gas developments, such as the huge 193 billion cubic metre Snøvhit field in the Barents Sea, where the Gulf Stream keeps the hostile conditions free of ice all year round, pose very different challenges. These challenges are similar to the hostile water conditions which impact our own oil and gas activities in the northern North Sea.
In St Petersburg, I was indebted to Artur Chilingarov, the doyen of the Russian Arctic community, whose planting of a titanium flag in 2007, from one of the two Mir submersibles on the seabed 13,980 feet below the North Pole, gained widespread international coverage, not least in strengthening Russian territorial claims—as the Russian Government saw it—and reinforcing the importance of the Arctic in the consciousness of the Russian people. I would also like to place on record my thanks to Professor Litvinenko, rector of the university of mines in St Petersburg, and to rector and academician Alexander Zapesotsky from the St Petersburg University of the Humanities and Social Sciences, for the access to experts which they facilitated; and to Victor Boyarsky, director of the museum of the Arctic and Antarctic, with whom I had lengthy discussions.
I will come back to some reflections on Russia. During my work on the Select Committee, I declared my interest as a director of Rowan Companies, a major international offshore drilling company, which has gained an enviable reputation for technical excellence and the strongest emphasis on safety. After 19 years, I have now retired. Today, Rowan’s CEO, Dr Thomas Burke, has few equals in the sector. He is vice-chair of a very important body in the context of the Arctic: the International Association of Drilling Contractors. The IADC is on record as having a task force responsible for delivering a safe working environment in the Arctic. Its work supplements the work on oil spill response in the Arctic undertaken by the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association, which is working on the critical area of spill response in the Arctic offshore.
IPIECA has highlighted considerations to ensure responsible future drilling operations in the Arctic. In 2014, the Arctic Council’s task force on oil pollution prevention announced its HSE case guidelines and activities related to well control and training. Day by day, I believe, this work makes the Arctic an increasingly safe environment for oil and gas activity. Why? It is because the key to future safe operations in the Arctic lies in the ability to evaluate and to seek continuously to improve spill prevention technology, well control, containment and response infrastructure specific to drilling in the Arctic environment. Hardly any of this work needs to be proprietary. We should continue to share oil spill prevention commitment and response technology advances on a global and international basis.
As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, was right in stating, our report focused on the fact that the current downturn in world oil prices provided an opportunity for allowing operators and supply and service companies to focus yet further on the key areas of safety, environmental protection, regulation, oil spill prevention and response preparedness. In doing so, I believe that the committee was right to recognise the sheer scale of the Arctic in global hydrocarbon activity, where around 10% of global oil production and 25% of gas production takes place, with 97% of this oil and gas production coming from onshore fields in Russia and Alaska, the clear majority of which are in Russia. Oil prices are cyclical and will come back. When they reach the levels we witnessed in 2008, the Arctic will represent a return of frontier exploration, which is what upstream oil companies do best, but they must use this opportunity to focus on safety and the environmental challenges, which are essential if that is to be sanctioned and licensed.
In the mean time, climate change in the Arctic is predicted to have two decisive outcomes: the economic exploitation of 25% of the world’s remaining natural resources; and the gradual opening up of the northern sea route, which, while far from commercial today, was still projected by some to become a global trade route, shortening sea transport times around the globe by as much as a third in some cases. In this context—I am glad that this has already been mentioned in the debate—we should not underestimate the directional change and the high importance that China attaches to the surfacing benefits of engaging with Russia in the Arctic for shipping, energy resources and, especially, Russian gas. Withdrawal from Alaskan drilling by Shell does not strengthen the case for a moratorium in the Arctic. It simply highlights that this is a business and, at current and near-term foreseeable prices, the cost involved did not match the benefit.
I believe that the Arctic Council should be seen as centrally important and unique. It should be nurtured and strongly supported by government. We should contribute more to the core business of the council and offer our services and financial support to the many vital environmental, scientific and strategic initiatives that it undertakes. We should continue to strive to be respected supporters. We should always respect the fact that we are not an Arctic nation, but as a near neighbour we have as much at stake as we did during the Second World War, when the Arctic and specifically the Norwegian and Barents Seas became significant strategic theatres.
Having focused on hydrocarbon development and the Arctic Council, I finally turn to Russia. Regional security co-operation and the security architecture lag behind political, environmental, scientific and economic co-operation in the Arctic. Duncan Depledge from Royal Holloway, University of London, told us:
“The biggest challenge facing international governance in the region concerns how relations are managed between Russia and the other Arctic states”.
The Arctic is an intrinsic part of the Russian soul, history and identity. Any plausible policy for the Arctic should start by fully engaging with Russia in the region. This can be best achieved by our Government through a foreign policy towards Russia that is built on compartmentalisation.
Russia has the longest Arctic coastline and an extensive exclusive economic zone. It would be surprising if it did not claim a legitimate right to expand its military presence in the Arctic maritime region. I do not believe that current developments are an attempt to regain the influence that Russia once held in the Soviet era. I do not see the Russians as pushing a “sphere of influence” policy in a way that could threaten neighbouring states. Understandably, current bilateral and multilateral relations impede progress on this front and colour our thinking, yet collaboration with Russia is essential to the UK as a near neighbour state to the Arctic. Through a policy of compartmentalisation, we can collaborate with Russia if we are to see essential progress on a broader front, including in our relations with Iran, the future of Syria, the resultant refugee crisis, and the success or otherwise of ISIL in the region.
In the summer of 2012 Russia re-established a permanent military presence in the Arctic, and evidence provided to us by Dr Andrew Foxall says that it has,
“increased the Northern Fleet’s forces, including commissioning a new icebreaker fleet and developing new nuclear attack submarines; modernised its forces in the three military districts that border the Arctic … including creating new Arctic brigades; begun constructing a missile early-warning radar in the Arctic, and re-opened Soviet-era military bases in the Arctic”.
Some witnesses saw these developments as instances of military restoration rather than expansion, arguing that Russia was investing in renewing its military presence to a far lesser extent that it had done during the Cold War, at a time when countries such as Canada, Denmark and Norway have also invested in their Arctic military capabilities and upgraded command structures in recent years. I interpret the build-up as “securitisation”. Throughout the region, tasks such as aerial surveillance, anti-smuggling inspections, fisheries monitoring, patrolling, search and rescue, and assistance with oil spill response efforts, fall to the armed forces because they have a near monopoly on the training, equipment and capabilities necessary to operate in Arctic conditions. Russia aims to make the Arctic its,
“foremost strategic base for natural resources”,
by 2020. To do so it must invest in both economic infrastructure and the military means to police an enormous region being restored to national economic centrality.
One perverse consequence of the current round of sanctions is that, if people want the safest technology in place to protect those who work on the oil and gas rigs and the environment in which they work, the best way to achieve this objective is collaboration with the West. The oil service technology at the disposal of Houston and Aberdeen-based companies ranks among the safest in the world. It is in our mutual interest to co-operate on this front and not impose sanctions in the oil and gas sector, where they impact on increasing safe and environmentally sensitive operations. The Government’s response to our report that,
“Despite Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the Government remains committed to cooperating with Russia on Arctic issues”,
is therefore welcome, and I look forward to the Minister expanding on that point.
Finally, I believe that the work of the Arctic Council would be strengthened by our recommendation to appoint a British ambassador responsible for closer co-ordination and a raised profile for the area, and for the issues we have covered—possibly for both poles. That would bring more financial support and prove more effective in drawing together the myriad lines of communication—scientific, academic, trade and political—which tie us, as the Arctic’s nearest neighbour, to this important part of the world. The UK has a hub of Arctic expertise—a fact that we learnt more about every week that we met—and a focus on significant information and expertise, which should be put to good use and offered for the benefit of the Arctic Council, the relevant Governments and the indigenous people. An ambassador would mean the need for a policy, for priority, for urgency, for commitment and for adequate resources. That should be the first and most positive step forward towards closer engagement with all members of the Arctic Council and all interested parties.
My Lords, I second the thanks to our chairman who showed not only the usual skills of chairmanship of a Select Committee but also very great commitment to the work of the body. I also identify myself with the comments about the staff, who were all excellent. The clerk, Susannah Street, has a second career beckoning as a photographer—although I might want to delete the photograph of me trying to stay upright on an ice sheet, dressed in full Arctic clothing. Indeed, I might pay a substantial sum to delete that.
The Arctic is changing, as has been indicated very clearly. Over the past few weeks I have talked to some oil people and the general view is that oil prices will not recover to where they were until the end of next year at least, and possibly later, and possibly will not recover to a level which makes the Arctic an attractive proposition, because the cost of drilling there will be so very much greater than in other areas. That is an important point. Having said that, we should not be blind to the enormous resources in the Arctic—everything from fish to rare earths, as several noble Lords have mentioned. China is showing great interest in rare earths and the opportunities for rare earth mining in that area are very important. The growth of interest in the Arctic, not just in shipping but in mining, fishing and tourism is very great.
On tourism, one thing that troubled us a little was that if a tourist ship got into serious trouble there, the problems associated with rescue would be very considerable. Because the area is so vast and difficult, there have been incidents, most of which have been dealt with fairly easily, but one of the things I would certainly like to see, and which I hope will be fully addressed, is the replacement of our maritime patrol aircraft, as suggested in the strategic defence review. We do not have it at the moment and we ought to have it. I know that we can rely on other NATO countries but we really need to have our own maritime patrol aircraft operating in the area. Tourism will grow and, as it grows, there needs to be emphasis on protecting the environment. Mention was made earlier of people throwing waste away or generally despoiling the area. There is also the rescue issue, to which I referred.
Governance is one of the most important aspects. We were all very impressed by the Arctic Council. It is working very well and we have a close relationship with it. However, we could build on that very considerably. Several members of our committee have great scientific knowledge. It is clear that some of the best work that Britain can do is on science. We have a great scientific reputation which is well recognised by other Arctic countries which are keen to work with us. Indeed, it is interesting that there were expressions of interest in working more closely with the United Kingdom in a number of areas. Iceland was interested in working with us on search and rescue, for example, and a number of other issues we thought were important.
We gave great thought to the question of Russia. It is a great pity that the Russian ambassador did not come and give evidence. Since then he has sent the chairman a letter, which is helpful but again it leaves you with the feeling that Russia is still holding back and is anxious about being involved. There is almost a feeling of an inferiority complex, and yet Russia controls a vast area and is doing some incredibly good science. The one thing you can say about Russia is that the quality of its science is very good and there are opportunities for us to work together.
I wish to make the following point very strongly. I am absolutely clear about the need to have made the response that we did over Ukraine. However, I listened to a speech by Condoleezza Rice, the former American Secretary of State under George Bush, making the point very forcefully, with which I agree, that although that was understandable and necessary, it was vital that we continued to work closely with the Russians in other areas. Science and the Arctic is one such area and we have to separate in our minds the actions of the current Russian Government from those of the Russian people as a whole and Russian institutions, particularly scientific institutions and universities, which would like to work closer with us. It is difficult for them to do so at times, but wherever possible we ought to encourage that and develop it as much as we can. I was very pleased to read in the Government’s response that they are going to organise an international conference at Wilton Park next year. That will be very important and something that we can develop and usefully build on.
I want to mention the indigenous people again. We met a number of these people. It is a question not just of protecting their rights, important though that is, but of recognising their knowledge of and skills in the area. One of the women, who was a key organiser for the group, actually herded reindeer for half the year and did her work for the indigenous people in the other half. We all felt that although it would be too intrusive for the United Kingdom to fund them directly, we could offer help in some way; for example, as the Government seem to suggest, in terms of educational opportunities at British universities, or in terms of funding particular activities for them from time to time.
It was very clear that the indigenous peoples’ groups were underfunded. The Russian one was particularly underfunded; I think the Russians are still struggling with the concept of whether there can be an interest for their own indigenous people as opposed to all Russian people being the same. It is not like that and the other members of the Arctic Council, ourselves and others, all recognise that indigenous people have a particular role. Here we have another interest in common with the Russians; that is, so many British companies are involved there that we have to be aware of the rights of the indigenous people when British mining companies or others start to work in the area. It is important both for the protection of the area and the rights of those people.
The most important issue, which the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has just commented on—and we have all commented on—is that we recommended that there be an ambassador for the Arctic. The Government have turned their face against that. I understand that and respect their decision. But I say this to the Minister: please do not close the door on that completely. As our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, pointed out, all these other countries—India, China, Singapore—are moving into the area and developing associations. It may be only a matter of time before they start appointing ambassadors and we might find that we are running behind if we do not do something similar. Whether that is right or wrong, I simply say to the Government: do not close the door on that opportunity just yet.
When the Government turned down the suggestion of a United Kingdom ambassador in the Arctic, they indicated that they understood the problem we were identifying—that our policy was too often reactive rather than proactive and that therefore we needed a better strategic response to it. The Government specifically mentioned that in their response. If we are not going down the road of the ambassador, that strategic response is crucial. If they do not make that come alive and be a really effective strategic response, we will fall behind again. I think we were all impressed by the lady from the Arctic department in the Foreign Office. She was very good and she was on top of her job. When we see that, we see the opportunity there for the United Kingdom to do more than we are doing. The British reputation in the Arctic, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, indicated, is very good, not just because of our history but because of the science that we do.
Finally, I have yet to understand how we are going to divide the polar research ship between the Arctic and the Antarctic—whether the front half goes to the Arctic and the back half goes to the Antarctic. I am not quite sure how this is going to be done. I would welcome some indication from the Government of how they plan to use it, presumably over a period of time, in both the Arctic and Antarctic. There is a very interesting question, which the committee dwelled on but we have not discussed much today, about how much we could make what we do in the Arctic and the Antarctic—with the British Antarctic survey, for example—one and the same. There are arguments around that which I do not want to get into now, even if I had the time. But this is important when we have something like the polar ship, which we must use in the best way we can because it is a very advanced ship, as I understand the proposal.
My Lords, as one of the very few speakers this afternoon not to have served on the committee, I must congratulate it and my noble friend Lord Teverson, its chairman, on producing such an interesting report. I have learnt a great deal more this afternoon by listening to contributions from members of the committee.
I want to make a short intervention on what I think my noble friend Lord Teverson referred to tangentially as an enforceable convention—it does not exist yet. My interest in this subject began when I visited Nova Scotia in 2008 and went to Thinkers’ Lodge, which is run by the Canadian Pugwash Group, the Nobel laureate group that does a lot of work on peace. In 2007, it produced a very interesting report on the Arctic as a nuclear weapons-free zone. This was in response to the push from the indigenous people of the Arctic in 1977, 1983 and 1998 to have the issue considered. It is perhaps a worthy addendum to this report to mention this subject.
It was unfortunate timing that a very wide survey of Arctic Council populations was published in April 2015, by which time the committee had finished taking its evidence and the report was published, but it is worth sharing some of the conclusions from that survey. The question was whether:
“The Arctic should be a nuclear weapons free zone just like Antarctica is, and the United States and Russia should remove their nuclear weapons from the Arctic”.
To give your Lordships a flavour of the responses, in Sweden the population surveyed was 90% in favour of that proposal. In Finland and Iceland it was 88%, and so on. The percentages obviously varied in that 2015 survey but when a similar question was put into 2010, the responses were more or less between 70% and 80%, so considerable support is growing for this idea. Very surprisingly—it certainly surprised me—even in Russia, support for it was 68% and in the USA it was 67%. Since Antarctica has been a nuclear weapons-free zone since 1961, the idea certainly has a strong precedent. For the Russians, as long ago as 1958 Premier Bulganin proposed that the Arctic should be a zone free of atomic and hydrogen weapons. That idea was also explored later by President Gorbachev in 1987.
I wanted to intervene briefly to throw that issue into the mix because it really concerns the Arctic Council, which bothered to have that survey done. The results are so positive that it merits much further serious consideration. As one of the nuclear weapon states, the UK is in a position to progress these discussions as well. There were a couple of mentions of some of the threats from nuclear weapons—not only the obvious issues but that of pollution, which the noble Lord, Lord West, mentioned when he intervened. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, also mentioned them. This bears further discussion. I think the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, also mentioned Wilton Park. I do not know what that discussion will produce but perhaps this idea might be taken further there.
My Lords, speaking as a member of the committee which prepared the report we are debating today, it would, I suspect, be unduly complacent of me to comment on its quality. However, I pay tribute to our chair, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who guided our sometimes somewhat wayward discussions with great skill and has admirably introduced the report today. I also pay tribute to our clerks and our special adviser, who supported our work so effectively.
Reporting on Britain’s response to a changing Arctic was a worthwhile exercise for this House to undertake, and it was right to appoint an ad hoc committee to do it. The changes taking place in the Arctic, mainly as a result of global warming, are running ahead of us at an unprecedented rate, and Britain’s policy, as the Arctic’s nearest neighbour, needs to adapt too. I am not quite sure, judging by the Government’s response to our requests, that they have fully grasped all the implications, or the great speed at which these changes are taking place. The evidence that we took soon brought home to us how much less straightforward handling the Arctic is than one might have supposed at the outset. For one thing, there is rather more hype about everything to do with the Arctic than is entirely justified—for example, about the speed at which new shipping routes will be established and the rapidity with which the Arctic’s mineral resources can or will be developed.
There are far more differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic than there are similarities. One is an expanse of frozen sea; the other is a land-mass. Apart from scientists, Antarctica is uninhabited, whereas in the Arctic there are 4 million or so inhabitants. The Antarctic is governed by a full international treaty regime, which is already in place; there is the possibility of such a regime in the Arctic but, partly because of the two differences I have referred to, that kind of approach, attractive though it might seem at first glance, is unlikely to be suitable.
The Government’s response to our report was, in many respects, welcome and supportive of our recommendations. Particularly welcome is the clear recognition of the desirability of sustaining co-operation among the Arctic states amid the current mini-cold war over Russia’s activities in Crimea and Ukraine. The global common goods of the Arctic can be satisfactorily managed only through a process of international co-operation. That needs to include the European Union as an observer, so I hope that Russia will soon overcome its hesitations in that respect, which are rather short-sighted, just as the Canadians have already done.
I will touch on three specific subjects in more detail: hydrocarbons, fisheries and the UK’s role in all this. The present trend in oil prices, particularly if it is sustained, is likely to slow exploration for oil and gas and, even more so, exploitation of it. Shell’s recent announcement that it is ceasing work in offshore Alaska demonstrates that very clearly. We are right to welcome that pause as a good thing, but it will be a good thing only if the companies and the regulatory authorities continue their research into handling the risks of operating in the Arctic. We were not convinced that enough had been done yet to reduce those risks and to strengthen the response capacity to any accident.
The Government’s response to our recommendations on fisheries—about fishing in the area of high seas not covered by any national regime—seems to me both inadequate and, by now, completely out of date. It is inadequate because paragraph 63 suggests that the best way to deal with this is through the negotiation of a new implementing agreement under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is designed to protect marine biology in areas beyond national jurisdictions.
Judging from practical experience of negotiating about UNCLOS, that could involve a very long delay and many complexities, covering as it would many parts of the world even more sensitive than the Arctic, so that is not a good route to go down. It is completely out of date, because the five Arctic littoral states all agreed in July this year to impose a moratorium on their fishing in these waters and have invited other interested states to join discussion about a possible regulatory regime. That is surely a far better approach than the Government’s preferred one, and a good deal less likely to replicate the experience elsewhere in the world, where the regulation of fisheries tends to be agreed only after extensive damage has been done to fish stocks.
I hope the Minister can respond to these questions: will the Government be responding positively to the invitation of the Arctic littoral states to join their discussion of a regulatory regime for fisheries in the Arctic high seas? Will they encourage the European Union to do so too? Meanwhile, will the Government subscribe to a moratorium until a regulatory regime is agreed?
That brings me to the whole matter of UK policy and its future role in the Arctic. I cannot resist saying that reading the Government’s response to our report made me wonder whether some hitherto non-broadcast script for “Yes Minister” had been unearthed. Thus, with the right hand, in paragraph 13, the Government state that they,
“will send representation to all future political level”—
note the adjective, carefully tested in “Yes Minister” exchanges—
“meetings of the Arctic Council”,
and, with the left hand, in paragraphs 25 and 63, they state that they will represent UK interests,
“at priority Arctic Council working group meetings, where resources permit”.
I am afraid to say that Sir Humphrey would have been proud of that piece of tergiversation; I think the Government should be less so.
As to the Government’s rejection of our proposal for the appointment of a UK ambassador as special representative to the Arctic, along with previous speakers, I am deeply disappointed. The resource issues prayed in aid of that rejection surely should not be the only consideration—although obviously they have to be given due weight. Even if they are, perhaps the Minister could kindly tell the House just what the added cost of making such an appointment would be, so that we have some idea of what it entails, and just what the supposedly inadequate added value of appointing such an ambassador would be. If we do not know what the figures are, we cannot tell whether they are right. Perhaps he could give us both those figures.
As one who filled a post of special representative for seven years, I assure the Minister that the added costs—that is, the amount I was paid—were pretty modest. In any case, as several other noble Lords have said, I hope that the Government will agree to review that regrettable decision. I do not think it measures up to the requirements of the situation.
I have two final thoughts. Is it really not worth considering some way of levying a charge on Arctic tourism so that a contribution is made to the excessive costs of providing adequate search and rescue facilities? People who go on tour to the Arctic are not normally among the lower deciles in income of our population. Although it is helpful of the Government to offer possible periodic updates to the Liaison Committee of this House, what on earth can the Liaison Committee do when it gets them? That is one small part of the case for establishing an international committee of the House, which I trust we will return to rather shortly, and on which I hope there will be a positive decision.
My Lords, I often wonder why many people show little concern in the face of the impending catastrophe of global warming. I am reminded of a fundamental dichotomy in human perceptions to which Voltaire famously drew attention. In 1757, Voltaire published an influential work of social philosophy and satire under the title Candide or Optimism. It is said to have been prompted by a disastrous earthquake in Lisbon, which is estimated to have killed 60,000 people in that city alone. It raised the question of how a belief in a benevolent deity could be maintained in the face of such natural disasters, or acts of God. There are two main protagonists in the satirical story. The first is the eponymous Candide, who roams the world with various companions and is confronted by an outrageous series of disasters. Some of the disasters are acts of God and others are attributable to human malfeasance. The second protagonist is a certain Doctor Pangloss, who is unaffected by the tragedies; he refuses to allow them to distract him from his everyday concerns and he asserts, repetitiously, that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Candide represents a category of people who could be described as catastrophists or absurdists: they see disasters everywhere that are compounded by human folly and ignorance. Doctor Pangloss, on the other hand, exemplifies a category of people whom one might describe as normalisers. We can recognise both classes of people in any assembled company. However, events that people experience at first hand may eventually cause them to move from one category to the other. Indeed, most of us embody both tendencies in varying degrees.
The absence of dramatic first-hand experiences of the effects of global warming has led many people to ignore the hazards. Their recognition of them has been much delayed. A full recognition requires a first-hand experience of such events as the flooding of the Somerset levels or of the city of New York, the inundations of Hurricane Patricia or the devastation of the island of Tacloban by Typhoon Haiyan. The difficulty is compounded by the unwillingness of scientists to attribute individual events to global warming; they prefer to consider only the average effects of those events. We have every reason to fear that, when we begin to feel the full force of the effects of global warming, it will be too late to avert a catastrophe.
The dichotomy of perceptions is clearly evident in the report of the Select Committee on the Arctic, an excellent and a well-crafted document for which the clerk of the committee, Susannah Street, and the policy analyst, Matthew Smith, must take much of the credit. On the one hand, the report conveys the evidence of an impending catastrophe; on the other, it documents the processes that are the normal social, political and economic responses to the ongoing changes in the Arctic environment. The report declares in its introduction that the committee did not seek to examine the global causes, processes or consequences of climate change. Nevertheless, its first chapter clearly displays the startling evidence of climate change that can be seen in the Arctic, and which will have inevitable global consequences.
In the period from 1900 to the present, Arctic surface temperatures over land have risen by as much as 4 degrees centigrade, if one takes the least favourable base year, and by no less than 3 degrees, if one takes the most favourable base year. The rise in temperature has been twice the rate of the global average, and can be regarded as the harbinger of a global temperature increase of the same or greater magnitude. The current scientific consensus is that if the present trends continue, they will result in an utterly destructive increase in temperature of 5 degrees centigrade. If the commitments to limit emissions that are likely to be confirmed by the forthcoming Paris conference were realised, the rise in temperature might be limited to 2.7 degrees by 2100. This figure must be set beside that of a rise of 2 degrees, which we have been told repeatedly is the maximum we can allow if we are not to experience severe disruptions to our way of life.
One very visible effect of the warming of the Arctic is the reduction in the ice cover. The report contains a compelling diagram, which is a product of satellite monitoring. Since 1980, the extent of the ice cover in the North Pole region has almost halved. This is a measurement only of the area of the ice; the picture becomes dramatically worse when one takes account of the diminution in thickness. Thin ice is quickly melted in the Arctic summer. The volume of ice appears to have decreased by 75% in the past 30 years. Many predict that the ice will have gone completely by the middle of the century. The prospect of an ice-free Arctic Ocean points to the opening of viable circumpolar sea routes, which would greatly shorten the distance of sea voyages that presently pass through the Suez and Panama canals.
In such circumstances, we must also envisage a dramatic rise in the sea level. Of course, the melting of sea ice alone cannot raise the sea level, but there will be a concomitant melting of land-based ice. The rate of loss of ice from Greenland has increased by a factor of five in the past 20 years. It is currently causing a rise in sea level of 2 millimetres per annum, which seems small enough. However, if all Greenland’s ice were to melt, the sea level would rise by more than 7 metres.
The rise in temperature and the reduction in ice cover are accompanied by vicious processes of positive feedback. The reduction in ice cover reduces the albedo, or solar reflectivity, of the Arctic region, which leads to a greater absorption of heat. The melting of the Arctic tundra is giving rise to emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Mole for mole, or volume for volume, it has 20 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.
The melting of the Arctic ice has been witnessed by the members of the committee who travelled to Svalbard, a cluster of islands dominated by Spitzbergen, which is 20 to 25 degrees from the North Pole. This is the world’s northernmost area of permanent habitation. The largest settlement is at Longyearbyen, which accommodates some 2,000 permanent inhabitants. The port of Longyearbyen, which has become substantially free of ice throughout the year, is the main logistic base for the cruise industry and for the cargo supplied to the settlements on Spitsbergen. Surface temperatures in Svalbard have increased by 3 degrees centigrade since the mid-1970s. The normal processes of commerce and industry have been evolving rapidly, in step with the evolving climatic and environmental conditions. The coal-mining industry, which has been present on the island since the beginning of the 20th century, is now in long-term decline, but a booming tourist industry is taking its place. The island is envisaged as a major logistical hub for the development of commercial and maritime activities in the polar regions. It is difficult to witness such normal activities and, at the same time, bear in mind the notion of an impending catastrophe. Svalbard provides a singular instance of the difficulty of reconciling the conflicting perceptions of normality and catastrophe, and of fully recognising the dangers we face.
There is, however, one factor present in Svalbard that should serve regularly to remind us of the dangers: the international university centre that is devoted to Arctic studies. A stream of information and analysis emanates from the centre, which can leave us in no doubt of the prospects for the Arctic. Svalbard hosts a large and growing scientific community in which the British have, so far, been major participants. One of the main recommendations of the Arctic Committee’s report is that our scientific presence in the Arctic should be bolstered in order to maintain the importance of our participation. This and other recommendations have met with a favourable but lukewarm reception in the Government’s response. Given the stringent limits the Government are imposing on the nation’s limited scientific budget, I am fearful that the recommendation will not be heeded. I urge that it be given the utmost priority.
If the processes we have witnessed in the Arctic continue, there is a strong likelihood that we will be tipped into a runaway process of global warming that will wipe many of us off the face of the earth. This is a means by which anthropogenic global warming might eventually be overcome. It seems to me that an ant colony has better instincts of survival than does humankind. I have witnessed at first hand the effect on the Arctic of a rapid process of warming, and I have been alarmed by what I have seen. I wish to voice my alarm. I firmly believe that, by maintaining and increasing our engagement in Arctic matters to an extent that may far exceed what the present Government regard as appropriate, we can raise our awareness of the hazards and enhance our ability to react to them in a timely and resilient manner.
My Lords, I was amused by the introduction by the noble Viscount who has just sat down regarding the pros and cons of global warming. I am not certain which camp I fall into. I am prepared to recognise that things have been changing, but will they go on changing? No one can predict what is going to happen in the future. All the computer models rely on the data that are put into them, and nature can throw up a googly at any time. What, for instance, would happen if we had a major volcanic eruption such as has happened in the past in Yosemite Valley or the Western Ghats of India? It would totally transform the weather pattern and to all intents and purposes would probably increase the ice extent enormously. So the problem is totally unpredictable. We can prepare only for what we think is happening, but we do not know that it is going to continue to happen. I will not say any more on that subject.
I also was not a member of the committee but I have visited Svalbard—admittedly about 10 years ago—when I went on a cruise in a former Swedish Government ice-breaker operating as a cruise ship. That was one of the last years when the ice extent was fairly severe, and in fact we were unable to do what was intended for the cruise, which was to circumnavigate the main island of Spitsbergen. However, we went up to 80 degrees north and had the delightful enjoyment of following polar bears in the ship—at a respectful distance. I must say that the Arctic is simply wonderful. The silence is another thing that struck me.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and the committee on their report. He said that they were unable to visit Ny-Ålesund. We did get there, on midsummer night, as it happened. We were strictly warned not to mix with the natives—that is, all the scientists—who were having an enormous party around a big bonfire. They had partaken of liquid refreshment, and as we were walking around the small settlement it took no time at all for them to say, “Come and join us”—and we all had a very good party.
I want to talk about the maritime side of the Arctic, which has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords. It is true that the much-trumpeted northern sea route has so far turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. The vast majority of the ships transiting the north-east passage are Russian, and a lot of them are taking oil or minerals from Russian settlements—not exactly going the whole way around the north of Russia. Those few other ships, apart from specific ice-breakers that go around, are in the main special ice-strengthened ships, which, as has been said, makes them a lot more expensive. They belong in the main to just two or three companies. One in particular, a Danish company called Nordic Bulk Carriers, has four reasonably large bulk carriers and two slightly smaller ones. These ships are specifically built for Arctic conditions. One of them has circumnavigated the world around the top, by going through the north-west passage and the north-east passage.
The ships transiting the north-west passage are mainly small yachts and the odd small cruise ship. The bulk carrier that I have just mentioned did it once eastwards, taking coal from Vancouver to Finland, and last year a Canadian bulk carrier took 23,000 tonnes of nickel concentrate to China. She is a specially built vessel and was able to complete the trip on her own without any assistance. Most of the ships going through the north-east passage have to have ice-breaker assistance and ice pilots. It is all very well to say that the distance is shorter—indeed it is, quite a lot shorter—but there are those expenses, and some types of ships like to call in at other ports.
Container ships are a particular example. A Chinese container ship went from China to Europe three years ago; the same ship has just completed its second voyage, which has led China to announce that a new “golden waterway” is opening up for trade. I will believe that when I see it. The season is not particularly long; it lasts from early July to mid-November—about now—and most of the ships in the early period are specifically ice-breakers. I very much doubt if the Chinese, as reported—this happened only last week—will set up a regular container route, because of the unpredictability. We have heard talk that the hydrographic charts in the area are not necessarily up to normal international standards, and the unpredictability of ice means that you can sail along in clear water for two or three days quite happily, but the next day you are completely surrounded by thick ice, because the ice is moved by wind and can shift all the time.
Therefore, certainly for the time being, there will not be any major traffic routes for international traffic round the north. Indeed, the Russians, who were very overoptimistic when they started opening up this waterway, have had to eat their words, and now say that international traffic will be very small: less than 1% of what goes through the Suez Canal. The other reason that ships go through Suez is that they stop off at a lot of way-ports to load other containers. If you go round the north, you will not load anything.
In May this year the International Maritime Organization, which is based on the other embankment, just across the river, adopted a new environmental part to its Polar Code, which from 1 January 2017 will be mandatory for all new ships to adopt and which deals with environmental matters such as discharge of oil, sewage, ballast water, and so on. All ships after 1 January 2018 will have to be brought up to standard when they go through renewal surveys.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, mentioned cruise ships. Many small cruise ships have been operating in Antarctic and Arctic waters for some time. The larger ships, which have been going down to Antarctica, are beginning to move into northern waters—I am talking about ships carrying 3,000 or 4,000 passengers. Greenland is particularly worried about this. In fact, I believe that it has stipulated that whenever a ship of that size goes up, it must be in consort with another ship of the same size so that there are two of them. That is not necessarily a good thing. I was talking to a former captain of the QE2 earlier on today, who said that it is dangerous enough for one ship; two can double the danger, if noble Lords see what I mean. So quite a number of things are still to be sorted out. Incidentally, looking on the web today I see that the Greenland ice sheet has been growing this year, at the fastest rate for the last four years—so the situation is still very unpredictable.
The Government’s response has been measured, recognising the supremacy of the Arctic Council. However, they are absolutely right to continue to be as engaged as is possible, certainly as regards British expertise on oil-spill response and all those sorts of things.
The key to everything, as has been said, is co-operation—not only between the Arctic states but internationally. Russia has been mentioned at length. It is always a bit of an unknown quantity. It is certainly building new ice-breakers and rescue ships and is setting up reporting stations along the northern sea route. One can never tell what Russia is going to do. If I was a commercial shipping man—which I am not—I would think very carefully about sending my ships regularly round the north of Russia. We have had a very interesting debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, towards the end of a debate like this, with so much expertise in the Chamber—experts here have listened to everything that I have listened to—there is not much new to say. However, I have one small advantage over the rest of the committee—I was the member who was sent to the Arctic Circle Assembly, an event in Reykjavik roughly a year ago. This was a meeting of all those based and interested in the Arctic; it included everything from commercial to scientific interests. If I concentrate most of my remarks on what I saw, I might be able to bring something new to our debate.
James Gray MP, who is no longer at the Bar of the House, led the delegation. It had been noted the year before that the British had been absent; it was not appreciated that a nation that was close to the area, had a scientific base, and knew what it was talking about in terms of research was not represented. So there was a large British delegation; I was a member of the Artic Committee, which was once again greatly appreciated by the rest of those present. It was thought to be a very good thing, something which resonated far beyond most reports, especially when they were being discussed. We were seen by major European powers and just about everybody else. The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, has just talked about shipping. We were seen by every major shipping nation on the planet—Singapore, India, China, Japan, Korea; you name it, they were there. It was seen as a very good thing that we sent a delegation and took an active part in that conference.
This led to one of those moments that happen only by accident. As the conference took place at this time of year, everyone was wearing poppies. It was suggested that we should all wear a proper poppy, not the little badge like I am wearing today, and that when we were on stage at this major conference of about 2,000 to 3,000 people, we would all have a nice big poppy on our lapels and make a short speech. There was, if not a water cooler moment, a coffee queue moment when a 23 year-old German research student said to me, “Why are you wearing flowers on your lapel? Is it something to do with gay rights?”. That was an interesting conversation which may not add very much to our deliberations, but it goes to show that any time spent in such a conference lets you give something to the rest of the world and your understanding of each other.
Most of the issues mentioned in this debate were discussed in small groups and clusters. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, spoke about melting permafrost releasing methane. I saw films about jets of flame coming spontaneously out of the ground; sometimes light catching on water can create this spontaneous effect. It can happen in the Arctic where the permafrost is melting. Anybody who denies that the world is getting warmer should have had a good long listen to the speeches that were made. It is getting warmer—there are no two ways about it—but we do not know at what rate that is happening. We have heard many discussions about ice regarding shipping. There is no way of knowing exactly when you will get a mainly ice-free route. Because most of the ice has been got rid of, it does not mean to say that it is safe for shipping. Forget the “Titanic”—an iceberg the size of a small car can take out a supertanker and, if that big ship is carrying oil, God help us all. All those considerations came through. There were discussions about insurance and what is required to go with that.
If people think that it is a good idea to extract minerals from the melting permafrost, they need to know that it cannot be done for some time, because you do not get firm ground; you get swamp and scrub forest, which is probably more difficult to operate in than permafrost. We just do not know what the changes are going to be. That is probably why we should pay far more attention to the scientific observer base—and, indeed, not just pure science but applied science, including engineering. Without that, we will not know what we can do and what the opportunities will be.
There was a huge absence at the conference. I was going to say that it was the elephant in the room but in fact it was the bear. Russia was not present because of what had happened in Ukraine, although there were one or two representatives from Russian regional government. I remember an incredibly colourfully dressed gentleman who said that he represented all the reindeer herders across a huge area of Russia. He claimed that there was a reindeer herder somewhere up in Scotland. I must admit that I was ignorant of that before the event started but apparently that is the case. One question that I want to ask is: how can you discuss the Arctic and the shipping lanes when the person providing safety and monitoring is not there? Unless we manage to establish practical lines of communication, we are never going to achieve at least some useful activity in the area and we will never be able to protect our own interests there, as I think everybody agrees.
In drawing to a conclusion and overview, I say that the changes in the Arctic that we discovered are leading to opportunities, but the fact is that we simply do not yet know what they are going to be. Everything is going to change, including attitudes towards people and social pressures, and unless we interact at a more grounded level, we will make mistakes. The committee heard—this was confirmed to me when I was in Reykjavik—how Greenpeace is bombarded by expletives from the Canadian Inuit and Greenlandic Inuit. They really do not like Greenpeace, whose members tell them, “You mustn’t kill things. It’s naughty”, but the Inuit make a living from harvesting seals. Indeed, it was suggested to me that polar bears are also harvested. I found that a little hard to take but that was said to me by people who come from there.
How do we integrate with these people? If we do not talk to Russia, we cannot find out what most of them think. We cannot walk to those territories. If we bring about economic growth and development there, we cannot pass it on to the huge parts of the population who are directly affected. We have to have lines of communication open at all times. We need to invest in the diplomatic and scientific community and study this at a global level. It may not be the most densely populated area of the globe but this is a global issue. If we do not invest in that way, we will miss out. I hope that in future the Government take on this work and realise that it is merely a starting point. We must invest time and energy—although probably not that much money—to get the best out of this. If we do not, we will miss out on a changing situation which will tell us about the troubles and opportunities to come.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the committee for its excellent report. I think that photographs should become de rigueur for committee reports. They certainly add a little to the enjoyment of those who have to read them from cold. In this case, they played a special part because, without seeing some of the photographs, I do not think that we would have carried the narrative quite so well. Having come to this knowing relatively little about the area, it was very helpful to have them. I also thank the chair of the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for his excellent introduction. He managed to draw the climate issues, the politics and the science strands of the report very neatly together and left us with a full appreciation of the issues at the heart of the report.
I am one of three people speaking in this debate who was not a member of the committee, but I think that we have missed out because the trip seemed to weigh heavily on those who were able to do it and they came back with new insights. Even if one was not there, it has been said enough today that we all need to think much harder about this area—its size, its remoteness, the fact that climate change is real and is happening there, the fact that there are so many people who live in what appears to be a barren and open space—the figure of 4 million has been mentioned—and that a population like that needs to be supported and looked after.
We have also learnt of the slightly odd governance arrangements, whereby those who live there are not directly involved in how the area is governed, and of the need for more science because we simply do not know enough about the issues. More co-operation is also a theme that comes out strongly from the study. We need to think, too, about the fact that the group that largely controls things is now being joined by more countries taking an interest in the area, not because they have geographical connections but because they see their interest perhaps in the resources and more generally—so we are seeing people from Asia and other parts of Europe getting involved. As has been said, our interest is not just because we are the closest neighbour to the Arctic Circle, which is important, but because we have engaged with the area over a long period and think it important enough to want to continue to do so.
What comes out of the report for me, reading it relatively cold—I am sorry about the pun—is the need to try to insulate the Arctic from tensions arising in other parts of the world, whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. It also raised the question whether that is feasible. The report is interested in not just the geopolitical tensions, which I think are important and will have an impact if action is not taken, but the physical and resource questions—which I want to come back to—which might require some form of isolation or protection of the area as a whole in terms of fishing, drilling and access to its resources.
However, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, made the important point that most of the immediate pressures on the Arctic originated elsewhere and continue to have a huge impact, so we are talking about carbon dioxide and methane warming and the economic developments that are causing resource pressures which may in turn impact badly—we have just heard about seal culling and other impacts which affect the indigenous people. So a lot of things are going on here and it is not at all clear how the present governance structures or our own interests will be calibrated to deal with them.
The bear in the room is Russia—several noble Lords made important contributions to this effect. It is clear that realpolitik is as important as the long-term games and objectives in terms of calibrations about nation-to-nation relations, but the presence there of people wanting to do different things suggests that we as a country, using whatever power and influence we have in other areas, need to work directly with people with whom we would perhaps want to differ on certain issues if we are going to protect the Arctic. That strand comes through as very important. In that respect, the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, on the possibility of creating a nuclear-free zone is surely worth a response by the Minister.
It is not just nuclear positions; militarisation is also going on. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, mentioned that most people seem to think that Russia has at least regenerated its military capacity of a few decades ago and others are not far behind. What is going to happen about that real and present threat? Are the Government ready to take this on and, if so, can the Minister comment on it?
I have mentioned already that we are talking about a significant number of people who live in this area and who have to gain the resources necessary to provide their living and to work with whatever other agencies are up there. We note that in their response the Government agree with the committee that the right way to do this is through the Arctic Council. The questions then are how that is developed, who is on it, what the relative powers and responsibilities are and, in particular, how we take forward the interests of the indigenous people. In his opening remarks the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, called for a strengthened role for the indigenous people if we are going to make sure that this is a sustainable, long-term arrangement, but of course there are real practical and operational difficulties in doing that. Again, I will be interested to hear how the Minister will respond further on this.
The most startling thing I noticed in the report was a figure which has been mentioned by a couple of people, which is that,
“30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered, recoverable, gas and 13 per cent of its undiscovered, recoverable, oil”,
supplies are located in the Arctic. The point was made by a number of speakers that we have an opportunity created by economic effects elsewhere that would possibly allow us to get our act together, if we are going to think about how best to approach the issue. It would be largely led by the private sector, and those who wish to be involved will make representations, but the march of progress given that amount of resource available, together with the changing climate making these gas and oil supplies easier to reach, is going to cause problems in the near term, if not immediately. How is this going to happen? The Government’s response says that the best way to do this is by working through the existing arrangements and instruments, and so far as it goes that is obviously a good starting point.
If we take first the oil and gas issues, the problem if they are developed, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, is the need to ensure that proper remediating activities are put in place and that we are alert to the fact that such activities will cause incredible damage if they are not properly looked after. There is quite a bit of policy in this area now, particularly through the United Nations guiding principles and other action on mining and the extractive industries. Will the Minister share with us whether he feels that the Government’s response to this is strong enough, given the need to make sure that should there be any development of this type in the Arctic, these are important principles to be relied on?
On the question of fishing, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said that the Government’s response is inadequate and out of date. Given that the Government are relying on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which one of the major partners, the USA, is not a signatory, that is obviously a bit of a problem. But as he said, the convention may not be the best mechanism because, if there is already a moratorium in place which has been signed by four of the littoral countries, that is something we should look at carefully. Again, the Minister might wish to respond on progress in this area.
A lot of this will be about diplomacy and the willingness of the Government to invest in order to make sure that the desirable objectives set out in this report are achieved. As has been explained, there is an FCO Minister for the polar regions, but the Government do not seem to believe that there is a need for the appointment of a single UK ambassador, although a number of noble Lords have suggested that that would make a difference. But whether an individual is appointed with plenipotentiary powers or as part of the ambassadorial service, the issue is surely about whether the resources are in place to ensure that the decisions we take in this area and the impact we wish to have can be effective. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, made much of the fact that when we did send a delegation recently, it was well received and the wish was expressed that we should continue to do so. However, Governments should not will the ends of policy without also willing the means, so I would be grateful if the Minister can confirm that the Government’s commitment to have representation, even though it may be described rather diffidently in the report, will be resourced on time. Logically, if we are going to do more, and given the importance of the area and our UK interests, we should not be saying that we will do this only if resources permit; we should be doing it anyway.
The final phrase in the report before the summary and conclusions states that:
“The UK is the Arctic’s nearest neighbour and the Arctic is the UK’s neighbourhood”.
That is a clever arrangement of words, and I think that for us it means that the Government must invest in this relationship if they are going to reap the benefits for the UK and for international common interests. It is too important to be left to others; we have a role to play and we should pick up the areas where we want to do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, described this report as a “wake-up call”, and I think he probably meant that it is a wake-up call for the Government. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that—and of course he was a member of the committee so I think that he has some prior knowledge of what to say. But I hope that this has also been a wake-up call more generally. Often in this House we keep our heads down on our day-to-day business and look only at domestic issues. When we read this report, we see a wider world for which there are great aspirations and huge interests in which we should be more involved. I am grateful to have been given the chance to speak in this debate because I have learnt a little more about this wonderful world. I recommend the report to the House.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate, on an important subject, and I thank all noble Lords who contributed and gave of their wide experience and knowledge. It is customary in Select Committee debates to thank the chair. I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, since, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned, I was a member of this committee, all too briefly, before I was entombed in the permafrost of the Government Whips’ Office. I also thank all other noble Lords and staff involved with the Select Committee for their outstanding efforts in putting together a balanced, thoughtful and well-evidenced report. Lastly, I thank my noble friend Lord Tugendhat, who originally proposed the idea for this Select Committee, for consequently focusing attention on the important issue of the changing Arctic.
As their response to the committee’s report makes clear, the Government believe that their approach to the Arctic, as laid out in the Arctic policy framework, was and remains the right one. However, we also agree with the committee that more can be done to ensure that the UK continues to take a leading role in the Arctic issues that affect us, and we are grateful to the committee for its constructive suggestions on how to do this. Our response sets out a number of steps which, taken together, represent a significant evolution of the UK’s Arctic policy. It is worth noting and celebrating the fact that, of the 67 conclusions and recommendations in the committee’s report, in only two specific areas have the Government not been persuaded of the strength of the committee’s recommendations. These are the appointment of an official Arctic ambassador, which I will come to later, and reassigning the existing Arctic policy framework as a strategy.
The UK’s Arctic policy is based on respect, co-operation and leadership. The Government will show that leadership—the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, wanted it to come first—by hosting an international policy forum at Wilton Park. The event will address a major policy issue affecting the Arctic. We will organise it in co-operation with our Arctic partners to ensure it complements, rather than duplicates, the work of the Arctic Council. We will focus the event on the best way to ensure that we and our fellow non-Arctic states can engage, in practical policy terms, in working with the Arctic Council states in delivering their long-term vision for a safe, peaceful, successful and inclusive Arctic. We are working hard on this with Wilton Park and we hope to be in a position to confirm the date of this conference in the near future.
The committee’s report rightly pointed out the gaps in our understanding of the Arctic Ocean. I am delighted that, following the Government’s response, the Natural Environment Research Council decided to fund a multiyear, £16 million strategic research programme called “The Changing Arctic Ocean: Implications for Marine Biology and Biogeochemistry”, looking at important changes in the Arctic Ocean. This was also highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and my noble friend Lady Neville-Jones. The research will help to address some of the biggest knowledge gaps in our understanding of the Arctic. It is a worthy demonstration of the continued UK commitment to this unique region. The programme builds on the £15 million Arctic research programme that ran from 2010 to 2015, and is already producing valuable data and conclusions that assist our understanding of this rapidly changing region.
We are also committing to a number of steps that will build on the existing co-ordination across government and the research community. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will lead discussions across Whitehall to develop and agree plans for engaging with the Arctic Council. The plans will align with the set of Arctic Council chairmanship priorities and enable us to focus and maintain our engagement on the subjects that matter most to us. The UK’s Arctic office, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and hosted by the British Antarctic Survey, will assist co-ordination to ensure more effective involvement in the Arctic across research disciplines. The Government, through the science and innovation network, will explore options for agreeing memoranda of understanding on Arctic and polar research with key partner countries. These will help to build on and support the already extensive framework for co-operation that exists between UK scientists and their international counterparts.
The Government’s commitment to the polar regions as a whole has been very visibly demonstrated by the announcement earlier this year of the decision to procure a new £200 million polar research vessel, to which the noble Lord, Lord Soley, referred. This vessel, which will be built by Cammell Laird in the UK, will provide a state-of-the-art platform for the latest polar science. I will come to how that will be used.
The main point that we disagreed with the committee on was the appointment of an Arctic ambassador, as mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Teverson and Lord Hannay, and my noble friend Lady Neville-Jones, among others. We accept that we need to have a better co-ordination of effort, but we are not convinced about the added benefits that an Arctic ambassador would bring to the UK’s engagement with that region. We have a Minister for the Polar Regions to represent the UK at a political level. We have senior civil servants who provide the same functions as the Arctic ambassadors of other countries in all but name.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, mentioned the cost of the ambassador. I almost thought that he was putting in a job application, but he says he is not. There will be some costs, but we also have 200 scientists who work in collaboration with others in the Arctic. They are fantastic ambassadors for the UK.
Our response commits us to a more strategic engagement with the Arctic Council and a greater role for the head of the UK’s Arctic office in assisting co-ordination across scientific disciplines. We feel that our methods so far have actually been rather more effective, but I say in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that we have not closed our minds. We take note of the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Soley and Lord Hannay, about the ambassador. I also welcome the positive comments about the Polar Regions Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I mentioned costs, but I do not think that the additional costs of an ambassadorial appointment are the main issue. We feel that the extra job that the ambassador would do is not currently fully convincing.
The noble Lords, Lord Hunt, Lord Oxburgh and Lord Teverson, and my noble friend Lady Neville-Jones asked what the practical points about appropriate representation to all future political-level meetings of the Arctic Council meant. We have been represented by the Polar Regions Department at political-level meetings—by that I mean senior Arctic official and ministerial meetings—since the start of the Arctic Council in 1996. The exact level of representation from the UK, official or ministerial, is obviously determined by the nature of the business under discussion. We keep all the meetings under review and we will always ensure that the UK is represented at the appropriate level. The UK’s Arctic office will fund the UK’s expert participation with the Arctic Council’s working groups and task forces, in line with the UK’s scientific and strategic priorities. Obviously, that is subject to resources.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, talked about the UK’s presence at the Arctic Circle Assembly in 2015. He mentioned the fact that we maintained a profile set by the 2014 delegation that he attended. This year’s delegation was led by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Robin Grimes. Interestingly, Russia had a very significant presence at the Arctic Circle Assembly in 2015: its Arctic Council representative, its Deputy Minister of Transport and the governor of Archangel province. These fora are useful for co-operation at many different levels.
The noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Oxburgh, asked whether we should have better co-ordination of UK effort in the Arctic Council. We agree that we can be better co-ordinated. Paragraph 75 of the Government’s response is pertinent here. The FCO’s Polar Regions Department, together with the head of the UK’s Arctic office, under the direction of the director of the British Antarctic Survey, will work to assist this co-ordination.
Many noble Lords mentioned Russia—one of the largest Arctic states and obviously a key player—given the problems occurring with co-operation with Russia and sanctions in the rest of the world. In fact, the Arctic is a model of co-operation with Russia so far. Russia is a signatory of the Ilulissat Declaration of 2008, which commits the five Arctic coastal states to orderly settlements of disputes using international systems, such as UNCLOS, and minimising potential for conflict. So far, in any disputes that Russia has had—for example, the Barents Sea dispute with Norway— it has used international rules-based organisations to address them. This commitment, which Russia agreed, was reiterated in 2015 at the end of the Canadian chairmanship.
However, we are not naive about Russia’s military posture and related issues in the Arctic. The establishment or reopening of relatively small-scale military and search and rescue facilities has been proceeding for some time. It is taking place in Russian sovereign territory and we do not believe that it creates a real cause for concern. I stress that we absolutely do value co-operation in the Arctic, which we think is a special place in the world, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and others mentioned. So far, this applies to Russia and is in many ways a model of what could happen in the rest of the world. For example, I can point to scientific co-operation with Russia that is still ongoing. In fact, a small team from the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute visited the UK in April 2015. The Russian scientific base is extremely important. Russia is crucial to understanding Arctic systems, as has been mentioned, in particular the melting of the permafrost and release of methane gas.
We are keen to find broader and deeper ways for British and Russian Arctic scientists to co-operate in this field. We will look at ways to collaborate more effectively. We are keen to ensure follow-through in order to work more closely with Russia. The head of the UK’s Arctic office will address these issues, in addition to numerous others.
My noble friend Lady Neville-Jones made an interesting point about consideration of Arctic issues in policy-making. The publication of the UK’s Arctic policy framework demonstrated the Government’s commitment to consideration of Arctic matters across a range of UK policy interests. This will be reviewed by the end of the financial year. The Foreign Office will continue to chair the cross-government Arctic network to ensure continued focus on Arctic matters across relevant policy areas.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked about principles for mining and extractive industries. Governance of those extractive industries lies primarily with the Arctic states, which is where their work currently takes place and will to a great extent. The UK encourages the highest safety and environmental standards, both in regulation and directly with British companies. As has been mentioned, the first part of the polar code has been signed as part of the International Maritime Organization’s efforts.
The noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Hunt, talked about fishing in the high seas in the Arctic. The UK supports the creation of marine protected areas where the science supports it. We are working with other partners and OSPAR to assess appropriate marine protection measures. We are aware of the agreement between the five Arctic littoral states on a moratorium on fishing activities in the Arctic high seas area, and we are sympathetic towards their intention to gain further support for this from the EU and other fishing nations.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned search and rescue in the Arctic. We have world-renowned expertise and significant knowledge and experience of search and rescue as a general subject, but we do not have specific expertise in Arctic search and rescue. That is held by the countries surrounding the Arctic. However, we are very much alive to coastguard and search and rescue issues. The requirement for the UK maritime patrol capability is being considered as part of the 2015 strategic defence and security review process.
The noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Greenway, talked about Arctic tourism, and possible help with search and rescue. We think that any charge on tourism in the Arctic is a matter for the sovereign states, but operators, and so passengers, already pay landing fees when they land in the Arctic—for example, in Svalbard and Greenland. So a route for funding search and rescue is already in existence, and it could be argued that passengers are already supporting such systems—although it would usually be linked to military forces as well.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked about the new polar research vessel. It has the capability to deliver science in the Arctic as well as the Antarctic, but its primary function is to support the UK’s Antarctic presence. It will also be able to operate in the north during the Arctic summer—that is, the Antarctic winter—as the science priorities require. I cannot give a more precise timetable for where it is going at the moment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, introduced an interesting new point, which was not in the committee’s report, about a nuclear-free Arctic, and mentioned the growing support for that idea in many countries. We recognise the aspiration for a nuclear-free Arctic, but of course such matters are, in the main, for the sovereign Arctic states. In the meantime, it is encouraging that the Arctic states—sadly, currently without Russia—meet at defence level in the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable. This also includes the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and France. That level of co-operation and engagement is encouraging.
The noble Lords, Lord Teverson and Lord Soley, asked about indigenous peoples, and especially mentioned the specific knowledge they can contribute to the science base. We fully respect their rights, and the focus of our efforts is to ensure that indigenous peoples’ knowledge is taken into account in developing Arctic science. We are pleased that the UK was able to work so successfully with the Arctic Institute and the Science and Innovation Network to incorporate the views of indigenous people at the recent Arctic Circle assembly in Iceland. We will keep our engagement with indigenous peoples firmly at the front of our Arctic policy.
I am running out of time. If I have not answered all the questions asked by noble Lords—
We have not mentioned Scotland in the whole of the debate. There was a very important laboratory—SAMS, the Scottish Association for Marine Science, whose head resigned. Surely we should not be having the conference in Wilton Park; it should be in Scotland—the part of the UK closest to the Arctic. It will be a typical example of the London-based thinking that people criticise if we do not have this big conference up in the north.
I take that point, but I do not think that when scientists sit round and discuss issues, it matters whether they are in Scotland, England or any of the other Arctic observer states, including South Korea, China and India. They are not all in the north.
We have had a very constructive and informative discussion about the importance of this unique region to the UK. The Arctic is undergoing rapid change. It is not the Arctic of 20 years ago, and it will be different again 20 years from now. Global Arctic policy must be ready for, and take account of, these changes. The UK will play its part. The steps outlined in the Government response will help to ensure that we remain one of the most active and influential non-Arctic states. The Government are clear that our policy towards the Arctic will be kept under review. It has to be, to keep up with the rapid changes we are seeing, and our improving understanding of those changes.
The Government will report back to the House, through a letter to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, on developments outlined in our response within 18 months of the report’s publication. The United Kingdom has a key role to play in the Arctic. Our scientists, our business leaders and our Government representatives will all be closely engaged. The steps outlined in the Government response will help to ensure that we remain one of the most active and influential non-Arctic states, while—importantly—acknowledging the rights and primacy of the Arctic states themselves.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. When I spoke earlier, I did not declare an interest as a board member of the Marine Management Organisation. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, not least those who were not on the committee—the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and the noble Lord, Lord Greenway. I did not think anybody would manage to get the Western Ghats into the debate: although they exploded 56 million years ago, I hope that will not happen again in our lifetime.
I particularly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about the tourist tax. When we arrived in Svalbard, only 800 miles from the North Pole, we thought we were heading an expedition into the unknown and the dangerous, but where we were staying we were confronted by about 100 German tourists who would make the average age of the House of Lords seem relatively young. That shows how the tourist industry is changing there: perhaps we should tax them even more for their search and rescue.
I especially thank the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, for taking all the questions from the noble Lord, Lord West. That was quite undeserved, but the questions were beautifully answered. I thank her for that. On the question of Russia, which the noble Lord raised, I personally invited the Russian ambassador to give evidence, but unfortunately that was not possible. Through the good offices of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, we also asked Mr Chilingarov, the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for International Cooperation in the Arctic and Antarctic. Unfortunately, neither of those two gave evidence.
Like many of my colleagues, I regret that we are not going to appoint an ambassador for the Arctic. I am pleased that the Minister said that the door is not closed. I saw the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on the Government Benches a while ago—oh, I see that he is still here; I apologise for not noticing him. A year ago he produced a report on soft power, and it seems to me that our recommendation represents a very cheap way of achieving that.
I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its co-operation, through Jane Rumble, its head of the Polar Regions desk, and the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, for suggesting that the House address this subject. Not least, I thank our special adviser, Professor Klaus Dodds of Royal Holloway College, Susannah Street, our excellent clerk, and Matt Smith, our excellent policy analyst. To the Government I say that I and the other members of my committee will keep our eye on this issue. It is a subject on which Britain needs to wake up, not from a deep sleep but from a snooze. We move forward: the Government’s response is very encouraging in that respect, and we will ensure that we too keep a strong interest in this subject.