Scottish ministers were not consulted by the UK government when it drew up its first strategy on conservation and development in the Arctic last year. Now they are coming under growing pressure to come up with their own.
Tensions between the need to protect the polar region’s fragile environment and the demand to exploit its valuable resources are increasing as global warming melts the ice cap. Last week the UK oil giant, Shell, shelved controversial plans to drill in the Alaskan Arctic this summer.
The UK government produced its Arctic strategy in October after five years of consultation. It endorsed plans to exploit oil, gas and other minerals, but said there should be high environmental standards.
But now the strategy has come under fire for being “overly timid” so as not to offend other countries. In a paper published today by the Scottish Global Forum think tank, former British diplomat, Professor Alyson Bailes, highlights “weaknesses” in the UK approach.
“It provides no clear directives for the future UK military role, or for the ambitions of British business,” she argues. “Nor indeed does it address an array of other questions about non-state Arctic actors, including how far they ought to regulate and restrain themselves.”
She reveals that the Scottish government was not involved in drafting the UK strategy. “Yet Scotland is the nearest part of the UK to the Arctic, with a larger proportional stake both in fishing and the hydrocarbon sector, and more natural ports of call for Arctic shipping,” she says.
“It is more directly exposed to the working of Arctic climate change, and is far more likely to be affected - and asked to help - in any major disasters affecting the European High North.”
Bailes, who is now a professor at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik and a visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, told the Sunday Herald that Scotland should consider developing its own Arctic policy to cover those issues for which it has devolved responsibility.
“The Faroe Islands have already done something similar while remaining within the Kingdom of Denmark,” she said. “A separate Scottish effort might actually correct some weaknesses in the UK's stated policy as it stands.”
She added: “Scotland is small enough not to offend or threaten anyone. It is closer to many of the Arctic issues, and a successful, sustainable Arctic development would have a much bigger proportional impact on the Scottish economy.”
Bailes argued that a Scottish policy could say more about accidents in the Arctic, and how to respond to them. “Scotland also has a deeper understanding of the complex ways new oil and gas development can affect remote communities,” she said.
WWF Scotland criticised the UK government’s Arctic policy as “full of contradictions” because it backed oil and gas extraction while urging action to tackle climate change. Scotland would have a lot to contribute to an Arctic policy, suggested the environmental group’s director, Lang Banks.
He said: “Scotland’s longstanding scientific experience in the polar regions would certainly be of much use in helping to protect the Arctic while delivering a sustainable future for those who live there.”
Scottish Global Forum’s director, Dr John MacDonald, stressed that environmental concerns should be uppermost. “Russia has taken it upon itself to issue licences for the northern sea route and we know that they have a very poor record of regard for the environment,” he said.
The Scottish government confirmed that it had “no central record” of being consulted on the UK policy document. “We have no immediate plans to publish a separate Arctic strategy for Scotland,” said a government spokesman.
“Scotland has key shared interests with its geographical neighbours in the North Atlantic, such as Iceland and Norway, and a common interest in the Arctic and High North. We recognise the importance of the Arctic and the challenges that managing such a unique environment presents.”
He added: “The Scottish government is therefore committed to working constructively with its international partners to ensure that issues affecting the Arctic, such as climate change, are taken seriously and addressed appropriately.”
The article by Alyson Bailes can be read at scottishglobalforum.net.