1.32 million – remember that number. It sounds big, except when it’s describing Arctic sea ice: 1.32 million square miles is actually a new low point for Arctic ice – the smallest sea ice extent ever recorded in the Arctic since accurate measurements were made possible by satellites 30 years ago. And it was reached on 16 September this year.
The loss of Arctic summer sea ice is the clearest and most visible impact of human-induced climate change on our planet. That’s why 1.32 million is a number that should be ringing out across Whitehall today, and through governments across the world.
The last six years, 2007-2012, have seen the lowest seasonal minimum Arctic ice extents on record. As WWF’s Arctic expert Martin Sommerkorn explains: “This is a critical loss of habitat for a whole sea ice-dependent ecosystem and the unique animals that rely on that system”.
Thousands of years of evolution have prepared Arctic species like the polar bear, walrus and narwhal for life on and around the sea ice. Sea ice is particularly critical to the success of already vulnerable polar bears.
And the consequences extend beyond the Arctic. The loss of Arctic sea ice is also being linked with wet summers, severe winters and extreme weather events here in the UK and across the northern hemisphere.
To coincide with the sea ice minimum, the UK Environmental Audit Committee today released a hard-hitting report from their inquiry into the UK’s role in protecting the Arctic. We contributed substantially to this process, providing written and oral evidence.
Dominic Gogol from our public affairs team says: “A cross-party committee of MPs has spent nine months interviewing, researching, and correlating the available information from scientists, NGOs and businesses to produce this thorough report on ‘Protecting the Arctic’. The ball is now in the UK government’s court to respond to their strong concerns about how to protect one of the last great wildernesses on our planet.”
We support the recommendation for an immediate halt to all oil and gas exploration in the Arctic Ocean. Drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean is irresponsible and unacceptable. The risks and potential impacts are simply too high. We should be moving away from fossil fuels as we look towards a 100% renewable energy future. Companies like Shell and Cairn Energy must abandon their reckless ‘wildwest’-style pursuit of hydrocarbons in one of our greatest wilderness regions.
The MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee also recognised WWF’s call for a UK Arctic Strategy. Such a strategy would clearly set out the UK’s role in the region. It would reconcile the apparent lack of strategic thinking and policy coherence across Whitehall. And it would force DECC to rethink their absurd position of recognising the need to cut carbon emissions while simultaneously looking to Arctic oil and gas for energy security. Clearly the two are incompatible.
The Arctic is facing rapid meltdown. The UK government, and governments and industry across the world, must heed the warning signs from the Arctic and act with urgency and ambition to tackle climate change and transition to a renewable future.
One big opportunity is now sitting in ministers’ in-trays – the chance to use the forthcoming energy bill to deliver a carbon-free power sector by 2030 based on clean renewables, rather than a high-carbon future based on gas and other fossil fuels.