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UK's Arctic Policy Framework: Minister for the Polar Regions' speech

Minister for the Americas, Caribbean and the Overseas Territories David Rutley recently (29 February 2024) gave a speech at an Arctic reception at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

Excellencies, Ministers, ladies and gentlemen, as Minister for the Polar Regions it is a pleasure to welcome you.

One year ago, we launched Looking North – the UK’s Arctic Policy Framework. Many of you were here to celebrate that occasion with us – and indeed, it was drafted with your support and encouragement. We are joined by some new faces as well. And it is right that we should celebrate the progress that is now underway to implement it – and to look ahead to what comes next.

Some of you will recall the UK’s first Arctic Policy Framework – published in 2013. Back then, we made clear that ‘respect, cooperation, and appropriate leadership’ were the guiding principles of the UK’s approach in the region. And I can say that those principles still hold true today.

Yet we also need to recognise that the Arctic region itself has changed – not just physically, but geo-politically as well. 

Alas, we now know that the Arctic is warming up to 4 times faster than the rest of our planet – though it is less often recognised that this troubling headline belies significant regional variation that is even more worrying, with parts of the Barents Sea warming at 5 to 7 times the global average. Little wonder that in much of the Arctic, the number of wildfires has more than tripled since 2018, as summers have become drier and hotter, affecting livelihoods and endangering lives.

And of course, alongside Putin’s increasing militarisation in the region, we have witnessed Russia’s ongoing retreat from constructive international collaboration in the Arctic, as indeed is the case right across the board.

The impacts of these shifts are felt most deeply in the region, but these are not local problems. Far from it – what happens in the Arctic affects the United Kingdom, as its nearest neighbour, including our weather, and the profound impact that is having on the natural environment, including the migratory patterns of globally-significant species.

And indeed, what happens in the Arctic ripples out across the rest of the globe as well. So, we can, and must, navigate these challenges together.

Through ‘Looking North’, we re-set the UK’s approach to the Arctic to ensure that we remain responsive to these changes, that we can continue to play an appropriate leadership role, and that we can continue to build on the strong partnerships and collaboration we already enjoy.

So, let us be clear. The security and prosperity of the Arctic relies on the regional security that is now at risk of being eroded. What we need is low tension and high cooperation.

And as melting sea ice will make it possible for a wider range of state and non-state actors to access the region, the UK is committed to making sure the Arctic remains peaceful – and that includes intensifying work through the Joint Expeditionary Force, the Northern Group, the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable – hosting a roundtable for the first time last year – as well as through NATO, and indeed, the UK has wholeheartedly supported the process of NATO accession for Finland and Sweden.

Following the successful transition of the Chairship of the Arctic Council from Russia to Norway last May, we welcome the resumption of Council activities at a working level, without resorting to business-as-usual.

And we appreciate the hard work that has gone in to making this progress, because we believe it is in the long-term interests of all to sustain the Council as the pre-eminent intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation in the Arctic, and we are committed to the Arctic Council, through our role as a State Observer.

So, it is timely that my colleague the Minister for Science has recently announced new funding to support our Arctic engagement, on top of our investment of some £56 million in Arctic research funding over the past decade. That includes half a million pounds to support new opportunities for UK-based expertise to contribute to the work of the Arctic Council, new funding for an Arctic science partnership with Iceland, and a new £5 million Meteorology and Oceanography Capability Programme, bringing experts together from the UK, Canada, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

The Royal Research Ship Sir David Attenborough will make her inaugural Arctic science cruise to Greenland this summer. I have just had the immense privilege of joining her for a voyage to Antarctica and I could not have been more impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the teams on board and the capability she offers.

And, I am delighted that colleagues from British Antarctic Survey are here today – to show you more about the research they plan to undertake, and to give you a sneak-peak into the UK’s Arctic Research Station in Svalbard. And I am told they have even brought a responsibly-sourced chunk of Svalbard glacier to Whitehall as well for us to marvel at, so please do take a look.

We also know that changes in the Arctic open up the potential for new commercial pursuits – including opportunities to support the green transition. We are committed to working with others to ensure that these are managed safely, sustainably, and responsibly.

Last year, the UK took part last in the Conference of the Parties to the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement for the first time, as an Observer – and we will seek membership as soon as possible, because we are absolutely committed to protecting our ocean, to using marine resources sustainably, and to making the most of the latest science to help us manage it accordingly. This approach is paramount to making sure that the 4 million people who call the Arctic home can feel the benefits – the indigenous peoples and local communities who have been guardians of this important region for generations.

So, as I hope you can see, our new Arctic Policy Framework has already catalysed a new wave of work and engagement.

To help co-ordinate that I am convening a new Ministerial Group on the Arctic – and I am delighted that two of my Ministerial colleagues are here tonight – Andrew Griffith MP, Minister for Science, and Baroness Neville-Rolfe, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office. We have appointed James Jansen to a new senior diplomatic role leading on Arctic issues – expanding our capacity to engage with our Arctic Partners. Thank you, James.

And this April, I will be engaging on Arctic issues directly as part of a visit to Canada and Alaska. Before that, in March, the UK will be hosting, in Edinburgh, Arctic Science Summit Week – bringing together scientists from around the world to discuss new, strengthened, and enduring collaboration on Arctic research. 

And I hope this will also help the process of shaping our collective ambitions for the 5th International Polar Year of 2032/33 and beyond – because it is important that we take the long view, and invest now, to make sure we have the science and research we need to underpin the decisions we will take in the years ahead.

So lastly, I just want to thank you for all you are doing to help make this critical decade for the future of the Arctic really count.

It is up to all of us to keep at it – and we to looking forward to continuing to work with all of you to see this through, so we secure the resilient, sustainable, peaceful, and prosperous Arctic we all want to see – for generations to come.

Thank you.


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