Adapting to change – UK policy towards the ArcticArctic tourism

The environmental dimension

Barnacle geese
Due to its geographic location the UK shares a common marine and avian biodiversity with much of the Arctic.

The Arctic is a unique environment of global significance. The UK policy is to promote greater understanding of the Arctic through international scientific collaboration and to promote policy development on the basis of sound science. The UK has a large and active scientific commitment to the Arctic as is highlighted by the Natural Environment Research Council's £15 million Arctic Research Programme to investigate environmental and climate issues within the region.

Climate change

Climate change is the greatest threat facing the Arctic. The UK's goal, shared by the EU and recognised by all countries following the 2010 UN climate summit in Cancun, is to establish clear objectives for reducing human-generated greenhouse gas emissions over time to limit the global average temperature rise to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The temperature rise in the Arctic would likely be considerably higher than this with subsequent regional and global impacts. Achieving this goal will require the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. Find out more about mitigation at climate4classrooms.

The UK is working with other countries to build an understanding of the threats posed by climate change and the opportunities for action. The UK is leading by example having committed to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases by 34% of 1990 levels by 2020 through the Climate Change Act 2008. Actions to reduce short Lived Climate Forcers such as methane and soot are a crucial complement to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and tackling climate change. The scientific evidence for climate change is clear but further research is necessary to see how the climate system works.

UK emissions by source and sector.

Case study - reducing the UK's emission of methane. Source: UK GHG Inventory: Projections are taken from the UK's 2013 submission to the EU Monitoring Mechanism (EUMM) and are based on historic data taken from the 2012 inventory.

UK methane emissions have decreased by 58% from 1990 to 2011. they are projected to decrease by 22% between 2010 and 2030.

Activity: Find out why the Arctic is so sensitive to climate change.


The Arctic is one of the world's most pristine and biologically rich environments. As the most northerly neighbour to the Arctic the UK shares many different species with the Arctic and therefore has a significant interest in protecting the area's ecosystem. The rapid changes in the Arctic region pose immense management challenges for the Arctic nations as they endeavour to maintain the sustainability of the natural, cultural and economic resources of the region.

UK emissions by source and sector.

Map source: Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRIDArendal, available at: Data source: Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

UK and the Arctic – seabirds: an example of shared biodiversity.

Of the 25 breeding seabird species in the UK only 6 do not breed in the Arctic. Of the 25 breeding species in the Arctic's 'Atlantic sector' only 6 do not breed in the UK. The map shows the major global bird migration routes to the Arctic.

The UK is a strong supporter of the efforts of Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity to strive for marine protected areas and other area based protection mechanisms covering 10% of the world's oceans by 2020. Currently, areas beyond national jurisdiction indentified as Marine Protected Areas are only binding on the Parties to the relevant Convention or Treaty. The Arctic provides a primary habitat to seventeen different whale species, including dolphins and porpoises. As an active member of the International Whaling Commission the UK strongly supports the moratorium on commercial whaling and fully implements the EU-wide policy on trade in seal products.

Activity: Every year about 28,000 barnacle geese migrate to the Solway Firth in Scotland. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Caerlaverock is one of the best places to see the geese. Find out more.

Safeguarding the environment from commercial activity.

There is a long history of extracting hydrocarbons and other minerals in the Arctic. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has said that about 30% of the world's undiscovered gas and 13% of the world's undiscovered oil may be found north of the Arctic Circle, mostly under the sea in less that 500meters of water. The Russian Arctic has the largest deposits of natural gas in the world. Decisions on whether to extract deposit are for the commercial operators to make and the regulation of the exploitation is a matter for the Arctic States in whose jurisdiction they take place, but there are environmental considerations and risks.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea remains paramount in the prevention of pollutions from ships and this is ever more important as the amount of shipping in the Arctic increases. Fishing activity is increasing and the UK's overriding principle will be the precautionary and ecosystem-based approach, especially where the status of a given stock is uncertain.

Download the UK's policy towards the Environmental Dimension

Download case studies of UK science in action: understanding the Arctic Environment

Activity: Find out more about the Northwest and Northeast sea routes. make a list of the pros and cons of increased shipping in the Arctic


Home | 1: Climate change | 2: Living on the edge | 3: Arctic science | 4: Hunter or hunted? | 5: Postcard from the edge | 6: Troubled waters | 7: Resources from the edge | 8: Arctic Circumpolar Governance | 9: Snow, water, ice, permafrost | 10: Adapting to change

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