As Vladimir Putin wages war and climate change threat grows, the Arctic is increasingly one of world’s most strategically important areas – Malcolm Offord

“Or like the borealis race, that flit ere you can point their place.” As the couplet from Robert Burns’ epic poem Tam O’Shanter suggests, our National Bard understood the fleeting nature of the aurora borealis.
The Northern Lights dance across an Icelandic sky (Picture: Halldor Kolbeins/AFP via Getty Images)The Northern Lights dance across an Icelandic sky (Picture: Halldor Kolbeins/AFP via Getty Images)
The Northern Lights dance across an Icelandic sky (Picture: Halldor Kolbeins/AFP via Getty Images)

With his words in mind, I knew it was a rare treat when I witnessed a display of the Northern Lights on a trip to Iceland to represent the UK Government at the Arctic Circle Assembly.

The celestial spectacular was a breath-taking diversion on a fascinating and productive trip to Reykjavik for a truly international event, focussing on one of the world’s most strategically important areas.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In terms of geopolitics, the Arctic has been the scene of rising tension. Putin’s appalling invasion of Ukraine led to the formal intergovernmental Arctic Council being temporarily paused earlier this year.

The suspension came after member states the United States, Finland, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden rightly concluded the council should no longer continue under Russian chairmanship.

Offering an alternative forum, this month’s Arctic Circle Assembly, bringing together more than 60 countries, had an even deeper significance than usual given world events.

As I joined the politicians, scientists and businesses at the assembly, I made sure to use my visit to emphasise the UK’s unflinching commitment to the Arctic and Nato in the face of Russian aggression.

Given the UK Government’s responsibility for foreign affairs and defence, I was able to underline the strength of the UK and the strategic importance of our Armed Services and military installations.

The vital role of our forces is of particular relevance to Scotland, given our relative proximity to the Arctic and the men and women serving in bases like RAF Lossiemouth and Faslane, home of our nuclear deterrent.

Of course, Putin’s deadly assault is not the only global challenge facing the Arctic. Climate change poses a massive threat. The Arctic is warming four times faster than other parts of the world and the melting sea ice has massive repercussions for everyone. It was heartening to find out about the vast amount of scientific work and political capital being invested worldwide to tackle the problem.

Delivering the UK’s speech to the assembly, I informed delegates of our determination to use the UK’s presidency of COP26 in Scotland to secure the Glasgow Climate Pact, a hugely ambitious agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions and ensure the 2020s are dominated by action on global warming.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

I emphasised the UK’s global leadership through our world-leading climate change target to get to net-zero by 2050. And I was proud to spell out the millions of pounds invested by the UK Government in Arctic research. I was also able to tell delegates that the UK Government will shortly publish our Arctic Policy Framework, bringing together our defence, commercial and environmental commitment in the Arctic at this critical time.

That the environmental challenge we face is a global one was hammered home during a meeting with the Indian delegation. Although thousands of miles from either the Arctic or Antarctica, India is wrestling with the potentially devastating impact of global warming on what was described as the “third pole”: the mountains of the Himalayas.

Therefore, it was encouraging to hear that Indian and Icelandic scientists are collaborating on this challenge. Only by working together across the world can we make progress.

A busy programme included meetings with Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the foreign minister, Thórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörd Gylfadóttir, and former President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the chair of the Arctic Circle Assembly.

From a Scottish point of view, it was superb to see a strong delegation from Orkney at the assembly. Given the Orkney Islands’ long and deep association with the Arctic countries, their presence was particularly welcome. In my view, Orkney’s shared interests and history with the Arctic countries means there is enormous potential for the islands to act as a bridgehead in strengthening the UK and Scotland’s links with the far north.

I also met Icelandic parliamentarians and business representatives to discuss the potential for collaboration in renewable energy, energy security and trade.

A free trade agreement between Iceland and the UK was signed last year and we are determined to build on this. Already the UK is Iceland’s biggest trading partner with a combined trade of around £1.2 billion.

In the interests of creating new bonds between Scotland and Iceland, I visited the country’s largest computer games company, CCP Games. From their impressive offices in Reykjavik, CCP Games run an operation employing 500 people, which attracted a record $48 million in investment last year.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Earlier this year the UK Government invested a further £8 million to develop video games and, to me, Reykjavik has obvious parallels with Dundee’s world-leading track record in computer gaming.

I was encouraged by the enthusiasm shown by those at CCP Games to my suggestion that links could be forged between the two maritime cities, particularly when it comes to attracting young people into one of the great growth industries of tomorrow.

Earlier I had travelled to a giant greenhouse sitting in an enormous lava field. This was the home of BioEffect and Orf Genetics.

These are companies who are doing scientific work into plants, including a Scottish variety of barley, Golden Promise. It was an education to learn of the potential applications of this research in terms of health care and other areas.

I was able to tell the companies of the work being undertaken in Scotland at the International Barley Hub at Invergowrie’s James Hutton Institute – a centre of excellence benefiting from £20 million of UK Government cash through the Tay Cities Deal.

Finally, amidst a packed itinerary, there was just enough time to catch a glimpse of the famous Blue Lagoon thermal spa. Sadly, there was not enough time to sample the volcanic pools at this remarkable natural phenomenon.

Just like the aurora borealis, it was a fleeting visit.

Malcolm Offord is a UK Government Scotland Office minister



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.