Arctic Circle Assembly 2021: First Minister's speech - 14 October 2021

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks about climate change and Scotland's commitment to collaboration with the Arctic.

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Thank you very much indeed Chairman Grimsson, thank you very much to you for hosting this wonderful Summit and giving me the opportunity to join you here today and share some thoughts with you.

It is a real pleasure and I can’t emphasise that strongly enough, to be here with everyone in person. This is actually the very first international event that I have had the opportunity to attend since February of last year, before Covid of course turned our world upside down.

I suspect that may be true for many others in the audience here today so it’s truly wonderful to be here today, amongst so many of you, and especially good to be back in such friendly and familiar circumstances and surroundings.

It was 2016 that I first had the opportunity to attend and address an Arctic Circle Summit, and back then Scotland already had strong ties with many Arctic nations but it was also really obvious to us back then how much potential there was for much greater involvement and co-operation.

And so since 2016, I’m pleased to say that the Scottish Government has participated in every Arctic Circle summit. In 2017 we had the privilege to host an Arctic Circle Forum in Edinburgh and then in 2019 we published our own Arctic Policy Framework setting out, I hope clearly, Scotland’s plans and ambitions for closer partnership with Arctic nations. 

As a result of all of that and despite the many problems and frustrations that Covid has presented to us, Scotland’s relationships with the nations represented here has strengthened immeasurably thanks in no small part to our participation in the Arctic Circle. And the evidence of these closer relationships is tangible, for example back in 2016 there were just two Scottish universities in the University of the Arctic Network.  Today there are seven and that’s the same number as Sweden, and actually more than any non-Arctic country with the exception of China.

The network’s research partnerships underline how many common interests we have -  they cover digital health in rural areas; the protection of indigenous languages; marine science; the development of sustainable port infrastructure and much else besides. 

Because of this, academic institutions have received many of the grants from the Scottish Government’s new Arctic Connections fund - which made its first awards just this week. We have also recently confirmed support for a new academic network within Scotland to encourage even stronger research links with the Arctic.

We’re also working closely with Arctic countries on support for, and development of, our rural economy - that’s really important to us -  98% of Scotland’s landmass is classified as rural and we have 96 inhabited islands. These are characteristics of course shared by several Arctic nations. And so it makes a great deal of sense to learn from each other on issues such as rural repopulation, and digital health and care.

That interchange and exchange of information and expertise – often on very specific Arctic issues - is important but it is also reinforced by a much wider sharing of policy ideas and initiatives.

For example tomorrow morning, I will visit a Barnahus  - or a Children’s House – just a few miles from here. That Barnahus approach ensures that when children are the victims of violence or abuse, all of their needs are met in an integrated way in one place, under one roof.  It’s an approach which has gained international recognition and rightly and deservedly so and my government has made a commitment to implement it in Scotland.

So tomorrow, I'll have the opportunity to learn firsthand from the experience here in Iceland to take that home with me to Scotland.

So I think when we consider all of these connections together, it’s very clear that the growing range and variety of Scotland’s Arctic interests, says something important about our priorities for the future.

Of course it’s important to say that Scotland isn’t quite, geographically, part of the Arctic region.

But we are the most northerly non-Arctic nation.

We have claim, sort of, to be part of the Arctic region. Indeed the most northerly parts of Scotland is actually physically closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London. Which is a fact that can quite powerfully shift perspectives on Scotland’s place in the world.

We share common challenges, common values and common priorities with many other Arctic nations.

And so the key point I want to make and to underline today is this - our commitment to the Arctic isn’t simply a diplomatic nicety, it is in our view, a practical necessity and we think we stand to benefit hugely from it.

We will continue to strengthen our partnerships with the nations represented here today – because we believe that through those partnerships, Scotland has much to contribute. But we have perhaps even more to learn and to gain.

And i think it’s particularly true in relation to the world’s climate and nature crisis, just as was the case before the pandemic, these remain today, the most important issues facing our planet,.

And so they will – perhaps inevitably – be the focus of my remarks to you.

The Arctic Circle summit that I first attended in 2016 was also addressed by former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and his key message for the audience was that although the Paris Agreement was a massive step forward, the world has an obligation to “words into deeds”.

Unfortunately 5 years on, the world hasn’t yet done nearly enough to turn the words of Paris into the deeds that will deliver it.

And of course the current UN Secretary General, highlighted that last month, when he pointed out that the impact of the Nationally Determined Contributions submitted by nations so far, will be to limit global warming only to 2.7 degrees. 

And so the COP 26 summit taking place in Glasgow, my home city, in just two weeks time is absolutely crucial. It’s often easy to exaggerate the importance of events like this, but I don't think that it is an exaggeration to say that COP 26 in Glasgow represents the world’s best chance – and possibly the world’s last chance – to make the binding commitments, which give us a chance of keeping temperature increases to 1.5 degrees.

One of the many things we are very proud of, in Glasgow, is our role as a birthplace of the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th century. My hope, and i think it is a hope that the world must aspire to live up to,  is that the discussions there next month, will help us usher in a net-zero revolution around the world.

Scotland is trying to lead by example. We have cut our emissions by more than a half since 1990, so we are half way to Net Zero, but we do recognise that the next stage of the journey will be harder than the first. Since 2008 actually we have decarbonised faster than any country in the G20. We have now some of the world’s most ambitious targets for future cuts in emissions,  we aim to reduce them by 75% by the end of this decade, by 2030 which is not far away, and to become net zero by 2045.

Of course we recognise, as i think everyone does and must, that setting the targets is the relatively easy part, meeting them is much harder. But that of course is what counts. In Scotland we have much to do, but a great deal of progress and commitment to build on.

So for example we already generate 97% of our net electricity consumption from renewable sources. We have big plans backed by significant investment now to decarbonise our heating and transport systems. We are also investing in the restoration of peatlands, the planting of woodlands, and the improvement of other natural habitats.

In all of this, we aim, because we think it is vital to ensure a fair and just transition - to ensure that no individual or community is left behind as we make that shift.

That is why, for example, we have announced a big package of support targeted at the north east of Scotland. We have many jobs and much investment is dependent on our large, long standing oil and gas sector.

As we do all of this, Scotland is working with - and determined to continue to work with and learn from - partners around the globe. And  it’s not unsurprising that some of our most important partnerships are with the nations of the Arctic.

I mentioned Ban-ki Moon’s 2016 speech here earlier. In that speech, he described the Arctic as the "ground zero" of climate change. He highlighted that a temperature increase of 2% worldwide might well mean an increase of 4 or 5 degrees within the Arctic Circle.

And of course, just as the Arctic Circle is acutely affected by carbon emissions from across the world – the global heating which is taking place here, has impacts on the rest of the world.

As the Prime Minister was reflecting in her opening address earlier, when permafrost melts, it leads to the release of methane. When snow and ice cover is lost, heat is less likely to be reflected back into the atmosphere. These feedback effects from the Arctic, will accelerate the climate crisis globally. And that’s a reminder, a powerful reminder that i think of the fact that although the Arctic region can sometimes seem to others, remote to the rest of the world -  it really isn’t. What happens here has consequences for the whole of the planet just as the case is in reverse.

In my view, that isn’t simply true when it comes to the causes and consequences of the climate crisis.

The Arctic can also play a central role in developing the mitigations which can limit the impact of the climate emergency. Technologies and policy approaches developed here,  can help us keep global warming to 1.5 degrees. 

That is why tackling the climate emergency, has rightly become the single most important element in Scotland’s partnership with Arctic nations. 

It is an area where our governments co-operate closely. For example Scotland and Denmark have a memorandum of understanding, to promote co-operation on district heating and energy efficiency. That allows us to exchange knowledge on how to decarbonise our heating infrastructure, while also tackling the big problem of fuel poverty.  Indeed I met with Denmark's climate minister in Edinburgh yesterday and we committed to updating that partnership, a point I reinforced when I met the Danish foreign minister here today.

Many of the academic collaborations I mentioned earlier focus on climate change. For example Edinburgh University is working with 5 other universities on how we manage the environmental and social impacts of low carbon energy projects.

There are also important business partnerships which are helping Scotland’s transition to net zero.  For example the world’s largest floating windfarm – the Kincardine project, which is off Scotland’s Aberdeenshire coast - has been developed by Equinor of Norway.

And I really believe that there is scope for further collaboration and learning. One of my other visits here tomorrow will be to Iceland’s CarbFix and Orca plant – about 20 miles from here. It is the largest facility in the world for removing carbon dioxide from the air, and storing it underground.

I’m going there because Scotland wants to develop our own carbon capture and storage capabilities – partly  by using old north sea oil fields for storage. 

We believe that it is a technology which can be important – although only as part of a strategy for rapid decarbonisation. It shouldn’t become an excuse, for continuing to use fossil fuels unsustainably or for the long term.

The final area of co-operation that I want to highlight today, relates to COP 26 itself. Scotland is working with Nordic and Arctic nations to maximise our collective influence and impact at the summit.

Scotland for example, is co-sponsoring the Cryosphere pavilion at COP 26, which aims to raise awareness of the impact of climate change on the frozen regions of the world.

We are also hosting eight events in the Nordic Pavilion – addressing issues such as carbon capture and storage, peatland restoration, and marine science.

We’re working with the Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada to support an event celebrating International Inuit day. It is – among other things - an important reminder of the impact the climate emergency has on Indigenous people.

So all of these events will raise awareness, and foster collaboration. I hope they will help  to bring a successful outcome to that summit.

Ultimately, however, the true test of COP 26, will be whether it delivers the outcomes the world needs.

None of us can be certain right now, that that will be the case. There is no doubt – as the UN Secretary General has warned - that the world’s current National Determined Contributions, are insufficient to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, so there is much work to be done in the weeks leading up to and through COP26.

But I believe we must be optimistic that we can still find grounds for hope. Indeed – perhaps curiously and this was a point made earlier by the Prime Minister – I think we can find some basis for that optimism, even in our experiences of the last two years.

The pandemic has been incredibly testing for all of us.

But it has also reminded us that when necessary, governments and people can achieve quite extraordinary things.

In the last two years we have seen people pull together, to establish testing infrastructures, find and develop vaccines, and to do things that two years ago we would have thought impossible.

So in my view, the urgency we have shown in the face of a virus, now needs to be shown in the face of an even greater threat.

Climate change is the greatest challenge facing this planet.

COP 26 is our best chance to address it.

And the nations of the Arctic, the ground zero of the climate crisis,  have a major contribution to make -  in the discussions at COP itself, and in delivering and implementing change thereafter.

So for all of these reasons, Scotland will continue to work with you as closely as possible whenever we can - as all of us try together, to help one another on to a much more sustainable path for the future.

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