New U.K. Arctic Policy: Navigating the Tension Between Environmental and Commercial Interests

By Clive Archer

The British government’s long-awaited “policy framework” on the Arctic is not likely to please environmentalists who would like to see an outright moratorium on oil and natural gas drilling. But Clive Archer, emeritus professor and former head of the Manchester Metropolitan University’s European Institute, who has studied Arctic issues extensively, believes it is an important starting point. Archer recently participated in a National Geographic Great Energy Challenge forum on the science of change in the Arctic. -Editor

The British government has issued its first Arctic policy framework called “Adapting to Change: U.K. Policy Towards the Arctic.” It is produced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the ministry that leads on Arctic matters in the U.K. government.  Specifically the document deals with British interests in the Arctic, how the U.K. will deal with Arctic and other interested states about the region, and the experience that the U.K. has to offer.

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The U.K. vision for the Arctic means working towards “an Arctic that is safe and secure; well governed in conjunction with indigenous peoples and in line with international law; where policies are developed on the basis of sound science with full regard to the environment; and where only responsible development takes place” (p.7). This vision is supported by three principles: respect for the sovereign rights of the Arctic states, the interests of the people who live in the Arctic and for its environment; while accepting the prime position of the eight Arctic states and their peoples, the U.K. wants to show leadership on climate change, trans-boundary issues, science and industry in the region; the U.K. government wants to cooperate with the Arctic states, indigenous peoples and others in the region.

The policy framework sets out three tenets contributing to the U.K. policy in the Arctic. The first is the human, where the U.K. wants the region to be safe and secure, “well-governed in conjunction with indigenous people and in line with international law” (p.13). The U.K. wishes to work through the Arctic Council, in which it is an observer state, and other existing international organizations, and does not want a specific Arctic treaty called for by some non-governmental organizations (NGOs). (See related video: Experts use three words to describe the Arctic at The Arctic: The Science of Change live event.)

The second dimension is environmental, with mention of international scientific collaboration and science-based policy, and the U.K. contribution to both. The U.K. interest in climate change is set out, as is the U.K. government”s attempts to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, British work on biodiversity and the U.K.’s support of international agreements. The section on “safeguarding the climate from commercial activity” (p.21) is a balance between not denying such activity (see next paragraph) and the need for science-based international regulation. So, that the U.K. “will advocate for the use of the highest environmental and drilling standards in the Arctic, as elsewhere” is unlikely to mollify environmental NGOs who want a complete moratorium on such drilling.

In the third dimension, that of commerce, the U.K. wishes to promote the Arctic “where only responsible development takes place” (p.23). It is mentioned that the reduction in Arctic summer ice means a growing commercial interest in the region and that the people there have as much right as others to pursue economic prosperity, but that this must be done with due care for the Arctic environment and ecosystems. Thus the U.K. supports “legitimate and responsible business activity in the Arctic” (p.23). Norway, with its increased exploitation of hydrocarbons within the Arctic Circle and its sizeable export of gas to the U.K., comes under that heading and assists with the U.K.”s energy security. An Arctic contribution is seen as necessary to fulfil the continuing need for oil and gas. Shipping, fisheries and tourism in the region are also set to grow and the U.K. supports existing organizations to ensure that these activities are conducted in a sustainable and environmentally sound way. Finally, the U.K. is promoted as a place for commercial expertise of direct relevance to industries active in the Arctic.

This U.K. Arctic policy framework has been issued after a number of states, mainly the Arctic ones, have produced Arctic strategies. However, the FCO is at pains to stress that having such a strategic would not be suitable for a non-Arctic state such as the U.K.. Nevertheless, the framework stresses the extensive U.K. interests and activities in the region. It is also a result of the internal cooperation between government departments involved in the Arctic and which meet regularly to discuss Arctic-related issues, perhaps a point that could have been stressed more in the document.

An area of interest scarcely mentioned is that of defence, where the U.K. has had a traditional involvement. While this has diminished, it is still there and a coming review of U.K. global strategy will most likely see some attention to the polar regions.

The most notable element in the framework is the tension between a concern for the environment and commercial interests, something that all states attempt. The final mix will not satisfy the environmental NGOs, but does keep the U.K. active in international organizations in pursuit of environmental safeguards.

On the whole, this is good appreciation of U.K. interests in the Arctic and a starting point for further U.K. interest in the region.

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