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The Arctic region and climate change

The Arctic has one of the most extreme environments on the planet. But the pace of change here is accelerating. My visit to Svalbard this August brought home to me just how much this apparently remote and fragile environment is affected by our everyday actions here in the UK and around the world. I very much appreciated the organization of the tour by Norway and the opportunity to have in-depth discussions facilitated by Environment Minister Børge Brende. It was a wonderful opportunity to see some stunning scenes and the fragile wildlife. By Elliot Morley

In this article, I focus on one of the most pressing environmental issues facing the Arctic today – climate change. Already, average temperatures in the Arctic have risen by almost 1°C over the last 30 years – considerably faster than the global average. Northern Hemisphere summer sea ice extent has already decreased by about 15 percent since the 1950s. In parts of the Arctic, glaciers are losing almost two meters of ice a year, contributing to rising sea levels around the world.

average temperatures in the Arctic have risen by almost 1°C over the last 30 years – considerably faster than the global average

As concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to rise, the warming will continue. Scientists have predicted that global average temperatures could increase by as much as 6°C by the end of the century. At the same time, the UK’s Hadley Centre predicts that winters over the Arctic will warm by as much as 16°C under a high emissions scenario, and Arctic sea ice will disappear completely each summer.

We urgently need to tackle the emissions causing climate change. The UK Government has already put in place an ambitious program of domestic action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and ensure that we meet our target under the Kyoto Protocol and move towards our domestic goal of a 20 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010.

But much greater cuts will be needed globally if we are to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations and avoid the most serious impacts of climate change. This will require a fundamental shift towards increased energy efficiency and low carbon technologies. The UK is rising to the challenge and earlier this year the Government published an Energy White Paper, which puts us on a path towards a 60 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. We now need others to follow suit.

In addition, we need to focus our attention specifically on the threats posed by climate change for the Arctic region. The UK government is keen to continue its support to the Arctic Council in addressing climate change and other sustainable development issues, and in particular effects on communities of the High North.

The Arctic is not an enclave. Many of the problems facing the region do not originate there, and cannot be solved in the Arctic alone. We now need to work hard to ensure that international cooperation through the Arctic Council can be further developed to help us tackle this problem. Understanding what climate change means to this region is not only critical in and of itself – it is an early warning system for the whole planet.

ELLIOT MORLEY Minister of the Environment and Agri-Environment, UK

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