There were a series of exchanges during Question Time in the House of Lords this afternoon on the Arctic and the implications of the melting of the ice cap.  The implications are substantial – and not just because of the impact on global sea levels.  There is the potential opening up of a new sea route: the North West Passage sought by explorers so assiduously for centuries.  There is the potentially easier access to mineral deposits and the possibility of oil drilling as the ice recedes.  The ocean (and this brings with it the rights to exploitation of natural resources) itself falls within the territorial waters of a handful of countries – principally Canada, Russia and Greenland.

So what is the strategy being followed to protect UK interests (indeed have those interests even been defined)?

Alas, the answer is not to be found in today’s Hansard:

Lord Giddens

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the 2012 Arctic Report Card of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States showing record-low sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean during the past year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Baroness Verma):My Lords, the Government have noted the contents of the NOAA report with concern. The observed reductions of Arctic sea ice extent and thickness and the consequent regional environmental and societal impacts re-emphasise the urgent need for strong international action to tackle climate change. The UK has a leading role in the international negotiations and is working through the European Union, the G8 and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to reach further global agreement to reduce emissions. Domestically, we are also taking action through the Green Deal and through the Energy Bill.

Lord Giddens:I thank the Minister for that Answer. The self-same report says, in heavy scientific jargon, that the extreme melting of the Arctic is a kick up the pants to the world. In terms of doing more to combat climate change, I take it that the Minister will agree with that assessment. Are the Government prepared to work bilaterally with the Americans on the possible implications for changing weather patterns in the north Atlantic, since such changes look quite likely? These changes will have radical implications for our own weather and are perhaps already beginning. Are the Government working, or planning to work, with the Americans on these issues?

Baroness Verma:My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very important issue—we must be mindful of the different weather patterns that we are witnessing currently. We work through the UNFCCC process, and at the recent conference of the parties in Doha all countries restated their commitment to negotiate a global deal by 2015 on a single comprehensive and legally binding climate agreement to come into effect from 2020. The noble Lord also mentioned our relationship with the US. He is aware that the United Kingdom has bilateral relationships with many countries, particularly in the north Atlantic. Our relationship with the United States is crucial and we will be having ongoing discussions with it and with other partner countries.

Lord Trimble:My Lords, in the context of the United States, would the Minister consider that the US has greatly reduced its carbon emissions in the past year by reducing its dependence on coal plants through the development of shale gas?

Baroness Verma:Yes, my Lords; the noble Lord is right that the United States has reduced its carbon emissions and increased its production of shale gas. However, this country takes the view that we need to ensure that our energy supplies are a mix of renewables and traditional fossil-fuel based. Therefore, although we are looking at shale gas, it will be part of a mix of energy rather than our having a dependency on it.

Lord May of Oxford:My Lords, is the Minister aware that the cost of the actions that we should be energetically taking against climate change—the need for which is underlined by the faster than previously expected melting of Arctic ice—is significantly smaller than the discounted present value of the much more difficult actions that we will be faced with in future if we do not act? I declare an interest as a member of the Committee on Climate Change.

Baroness Verma:The noble Lord is of course right that we need to take action. I am pleased to say that this Government are taking action and working very hard with all partner countries to ensure that this global issue is tackled with a global response.

Viscount Hanworth:My Lords—

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally):My Lords, there is time for both sides. Perhaps we can hear first from the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth.

Viscount Hanworth:My Lords, an example of extreme folly is the manner in which we are allowing petroleum companies to pursue the exploration of oil and gas in the Arctic as the reduction of ice cover renders this more practical. Can the Minister tell us what steps, if any, the Government are taking to restrain such activities?

Baroness Verma:My Lords, the fact of the matter is that we will need supplies of oil for the near future. Although we work very hard with our partner countries to ensure that everything is done in an environmentally safe way and with consideration to the environment and locations, we cannot dictate to the Arctic states or to the Arctic Council how they progress with their drilling. However, we know that they take the issue very seriously and are very environmentally effective when it comes to the security and safety of how they drill.

Baroness Parminter:What global greenhouse-gas emissions stabilisation levels do the Government believe will be necessary to protect Arctic summer sea ice for the remainder of this century? In asking this question I also congratulate the Government on the launch today of the Green Deal, which will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from British homes.

Baroness Verma:My Lords, I thank my noble friend for mentioning the Green Deal, which will of course help very much in how we respond individually to a very serious issue. Greenhouse gases are the key cause of climate warming. We have invested heavily in research to ensure that, working with Defra, we have many ways of responding to the climate change which is happening around us and to ensure that other countries are working with us in that response.

Lord Harris of Haringey:In the past 60 years more than half of the ice in the Arctic has disappeared. That opens up the prospect of the north-west passage—which we all remember from our history books in childhood—becoming a reality. This has enormous strategic implications not only in the movement of goods but in extra exploration for both oil and other minerals. How do the Government see the United Kingdom’s strategic interests, and are they pursuing those through their associate membership of the Arctic Council?

Baroness Verma:My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise that issue. Although we are not a member of the Arctic Council or an Arctic state, we have been invited in as observers and we are able to have a very constructive dialogue with those Arctic states and with other observer states as well.

Baroness Worthington:My Lords, the Arctic is experiencing rapid change due to the impact of man-made global warming. In recognition of the unique and fragile nature of this region, Greenpeace is calling for the establishment of a global Arctic sanctuary. The Environmental Audit Committee also recommended that a sanctuary be established in its report, Protecting the Arctic. Can the Minister please inform the House what actions the Government are taking to secure a marine protected area in the Arctic and what assessment they have made of the risks, both economic and environmental, of allowing oil extraction in the area?

Baroness Verma:My Lords, as I think I have said in answer to a number of the questions put to me today, we have to work very closely with the Arctic states and the Arctic Council. However, I recognise the noble Baroness’s point about the depletion of marine life. If she will allow me, I will make sure that she receives a much fuller answer, given that this is quite a serious issue that needs to be tackled.”

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