With the Arctic and the Antarctic once again arousing great media and public interest, there has never been a more suitable time in the past fifty years for the establishment of a UK-based independent, international think-tank dedicated exclusively to issues affecting the Polar Regions. As the Arctic Council celebrates its twentieth anniversary in 2016, the newly-established Arctic Economic Council also moves towards maturity, with the opening of its secretariat in Tromsø and the adoption of its foundational documents. Likewise, as the world commemorates the centenary of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17, the Parties to the Antarctic Treaty mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Protocol on Environmental Protection, which designated Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”.
Meanwhile, government delegations from over 190 countries reached a historic agreement at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21, in Paris, where they expectedly grappled with the effects of climate change in the Polar Regions. Indeed, nowhere else can these effects be more greatly felt, with temperatures rising much faster therein, and where the loss of sea ice, melting of ice caps and glaciers, and thawing permafrost makes the harsh reality inescapable. Furthermore, what happens in the Polar Regions has an impact on the rest of the world, whether on climate, rising sea levels or even migratory species of mammals and birds; and the UK is no exception. There is, hence, a pressing need for a dynamic body that can support the UK and other affected or interested Commonwealth states in addressing the causes and consequences of climate change.
The changes in the Polar Regions, moreover, present both challenges and opportunities. The reduction of sea ice has led to renewed interest in the northern sea routes that could reduce the time taken to ship goods between Europe and Asia. Improvements in technology have also meant that oil and gas and mining companies have increasingly eyed the Arctic, which is said to hold 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas, 13% of its undiscovered oil and substantial reserves of metals and rare earths. Likewise, countries are competing to acquire greater influence in Antarctica, interested in the strategic opportunities it presents. Ongoing developments in the shipping, fisheries, energy, mining, tourism and ICT sectors provide trade and investment opportunities for UK and Commonwealth businesses and investors. Similarly, the UK and major Commonwealth member states represent key markets for Arctic and Nordic businesses and investments.
As a centre of commercial expertise directly relevant to these industries, gateway to Europe and the Commonwealth, and home to some of the most effective environmental non-governmental organisations, the UK is strategically placed to play a significant role in promoting both the environmental stewardship and the sustainable development of the Polar Regions. The UK is a great power which continues to exercise considerable political, economic, cultural, military and scientific influence internationally. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a founding member of the Commonwealth of Nations, and a key member state within the EU, Council of Europe, NATO, OECD, G7, G20 and the World Trade Organisation. London, its capital, is one of the world’s leading centres for finance, investment, tourism, education, media and culture and is home to the Secretariats of the Commonwealth, the International Maritime Organisation, and the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission.
Furthermore, the UK has had a long and rich history of engagement with the Polar Regions. It has played a pioneering role in polar exploration; and prior to Canada acquiring Dominion status in 1867 and the transfer of the British Arctic territories to Canada in 1880, it was very much an Arctic state. Although the UK no longer has any territory, claims or ambitions in the Arctic to warrant that status, it remains the Arctic’s ‘nearest neighbour’, with the islet of Out Shack in the Shetland Islands – the northernmost point of the British Isles – lying just 320 nautical miles south of the Arctic Circle. The UK is also one of seven states with territorial claims in the Antarctic, with the British Antarctic Territory comprising the largest of the 14 British Overseas Territories. Moreover, the UK remains one of the 12 original signatories to the Antarctic Treaty and one of the 12 non-Arctic Observers at the Arctic Council.
In reflection of this long and rich history which continues to bind the UK to the past, the present and the future of the Arctic and the Antarctic, the UK serves as home to one of the finest polar research communities in the world and remains a leading player in the open fields of polar exploration. Be it at the levels of Parliament or Government, recent years have only seen greater attention directed towards the Polar Regions. Even in international fora convened on issues ranging from regional cooperation to climate negotiations and environmental governance, the UK has proven time after time to be a welcome and well-regarded participant. There is, of course, opportunity for further engagement, especially at the level of civil society, where the addition of an independent actor that can link the public, private and third sectors, as well as academia, media, community stakeholders and the public, would prove most beneficial.
Little could be more valuable in this regard than a non-governmental, non-partisan think-tank based in London that raises the visibility and reach of ongoing polar research; connects knowledge producers and end users in the public, private and third sectors; and harnesses available expertise to address the regions’ most pressing challenges. Such a think-tank could serve, within the UK, as an independent advocate that calls for – and provides the necessary support to achieve – more focused and sustained engagement with the Polar Regions, as there are aplenty for Africa and Asia. Such a think-tank could also serve, beyond the UK, as a neutral and reliable external interlocutor best suited to facilitating dialogue between stakeholders within the Arctic and the Antarctic. As its mission indicates, PRPI is uniquely placed to being the ideal bridge between the UK, the Commonwealth and the Polar Regions.