Interview with Arctic Council Observer: United Kingdom

11 March 2020
The United Kingdom has had Observer status in the Arctic Council since 1998. As an Observer, the UK can contribute to the Arctic Council through meeting attendance, providing scientific expertise to Working Groups, project proposals and financial contribution (not to exceed financing from Arctic States, unless otherwise decided by the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials) and statements.

We spoke with Christine Kelly, Arctic Policy Officer at the Polar Regions Department about the UK’s interest in the Arctic region, its engagement with the Arctic Council and projects it has worked on.

What is the UK’s interest in the Arctic region?

The United Kingdom has a long historical association with the Arctic and our interest in the region remains just as strong today. We are the Arctic’s nearest neighbor, and changes in the Arctic environment will affect the UK through global sea-level rise, changes to our climate and weather patterns and threats to our shared biodiversity. It is for these reasons that our 2018 Arctic Policy Framework, “Beyond the Ice,” set out our commitments to the Arctic.

Whether through cutting edge scientific research that aims to advance global understanding of how changes in the Arctic environment will have global consequences; helping protect the fragile Arctic environment through our work in multilateral organizations; ensuring that British nationals who visit the region can do so safely, and that British business interests are protected and can conduct their activities in a sustainable and responsible manner; or working in partnership with Arctic nations to keep peace and stability in the region, the UK has a strong and enduring connection with the region.

How do you work with the Arctic Council to tackle pressing issues in the Arctic?

Our association pre-dates the Arctic Council as a supporter of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy of 1991, and we later became one of the four original non-Arctic state Observers to the Arctic Council [along with Germany, The Netherlands and Poland, all of which were present at the signing of the Ottawa Declaration]. While we attend all Ministerial and Senior Arctic Official meetings to stay informed of the important issues discussed at the Arctic Council, the real business happens through its Working Groups and Expert Groups, so we endeavor to engage in projects where the UK has relevant expertise or a clear interest.

For example, as a strong supporter for action to reduce global emissions of methane and black carbon, the UK was actively involved during the development stage of the Black Carbon framework 2015 and remains an interested party as this develops. More recently, we attended all of the Science Cooperation Task Force meetings and actively suggested alternative wording for text directly relating to the position of non-Arctic States.

As a strong proponent for safe passage for ships in Arctic waters the UK was active in discussions with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group through the development of the Polar Code. Consequently, UK industry hosted the inaugural and subsequent Arctic Shipping Best Practice Information Forum in 2017 and 2018. Participants from UK government agencies, the UK maritime industry and business services sector all contributed to advancing understanding of the Polar Code and the best practice website launched in London in May 2018. More recently we have provided a financial contribution to support the ongoing development of the website.

What Arctic Council initiatives are you currently working on?

UK experts are contributing to ongoing working group projects in several areas, primarily through PAME, the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) Working Group and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) Working Group. With increasing numbers of British visitors to the Arctic, we want to ensure that they can do so safely and responsibly. We are therefore co-leads with Canada and Iceland on PAME’s Arctic Marine Tourism project, where the British Antarctic Survey is providing technical expertise. The UK Hydrographic Office shared relevant experience and feedback for the Guidelines for Marine Risk Assessment when they joined a workshop convened by EPPR in September 2019.

In addition, experts from the Centre for the Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, an agency of the UK environment ministry, are actively participating in PAME’s work to develop a Marine Litter Regional Action Plan for the Arctic, and the UK Joint Nature Conservation Committee provides technical input to the work of CAFF through the Seabird Working Group and the Arctic Migratory Bird Initiative. The Plymouth Marine Laboratory continues to support AMAP’s work on Arctic Ocean acidification, including joining the Arctic Council panel at COP25 in Madrid last December.

Who are the key actors in the UK engaging in Arctic Council work?

There are over 70 institutions across the UK engaged in Arctic research and this year the UK research station at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, Norway celebrates its 30th anniversary. The UK Arctic Office supports the UK Arctic research community, and along with the Science and Innovation teams in our overseas missions in the eight Arctic States, they build connections that contribute to important research and innovation collaborations across the Arctic region. I sit within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which coordinates UK Arctic policy across a range of UK ministries and agencies. They include the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Department for Transport, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Maritime Coastguard Agency. Through this extensive network, it enables appropriate engagement between the UK and the Arctic Council at multiple levels.

In what other ways does the UK support the Arctic?

As a strong advocate of the international rules-based system, the UK recognizes the importance of negotiated and consensus-driven agreements through multilateral organizations, treaties and conventions such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the IMO and the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR Convention) of which we are party. Such arrangements continue to provide an additional platform for cooperation between the Arctic States and with the wider international community.

A good example of such cooperation is the development of the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. The UK played a proactive role in the development of the text and fully supports the objectives of the Agreement. This aligns with our interest in effective governance of both the Arctic region and fish stocks in the high seas. We look forward to the Agreement coming into force. Moreover, the UK is looking at joining the Agreement in its own right and as an independent party, now that it has left the EU. We would be interested in discussing our potential accession with other parties at the earliest opportunity.

Perhaps most significantly this year, in November, the UK and Italy will host COP26 in Glasgow. It is vital the world comes together and takes renewed action to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. We urge every country to come forward in 2020 with ambitious new nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that will help us meet the commitments set out under the 2015 Paris Agreement, including long-term strategies which mark a course to net zero emissions. With China hosting the conference of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity just before COP26, this year provides a unique opportunity to tackle the twin crises in climate and biodiversity – both of which touch the Arctic.

To learn more about the role of Observers and the criteria for admission, click here. You can learn more about the past and ongoing work of Arctic Council Observers through their activity reports and reviews.