Troubled Waters - How to protect the Arctic from the growing impact of shipping

As the decline of Arctic sea-ice continues, the prospect of an ice-free Arctic ocean in the near future draws closer. Arctic melting is seen by industry and some governments as an opportunity to develop human and exploitative activities in the region (oil and gas production, mining, shipping, tourism). But while Arctic melting is surely an effect of climate change, it is imperative that it does not become another cause of climate change. This vicious circle threatening the Arctic and the global ecosystems needs to be broken.

Unless action is taken, the increase in human activities in this particularly sensitive and unique ecosystem will predictably cause an increase of harmful emissions; the Arctic region is already warming twice as rapidly as the rest of the planet and this trend is expected to accelerate as global warming intensifies.

Recognising the potential threats that an increase in shipping activities will pose to the Arctic, the international community decided in 2008 to adopt specific regulations for ships sailing in polar waters through the development of the mandatory code for ships operating in polar waters (the so-called Polar Code). The code focusses mainly on safety issues but is also due to contain an environmental chapter. Safety aspects are well advanced but for reasons that remain unclear, work on the code’s environmental chapter was delayed until at least 2013. This is regrettable and sends the worrying signal that environmental provisions may be of secondary importance.

The European Commission supports the EU playing a greater role in Arctic policies and set outs its views in a June 2012 communication on developing an EU policy towards the Arctic region . The Commission confirmed its interest in the development of the Polar Code and explicitly recognised the need to manage the Arctic’s fragile environment with the utmost care; “economic opportunities do not come at the expense of the highest environmental standards and the preservation of the unique Arctic environment”. However, the document does not say how these words will be reflected in deeds and the overall message lacks a clear vision of the EU’s objectives to deal with the growing challenges of in-Arctic shipping.

This paper zooms in on three issues related to the potential impact of an increase in shipping in the Arctic region: increase of emissions of black carbon, the risks of carrying and burning heavy fuel oil, and the potential for regulated ship speeds. It also examines in detail protective measures that could be adopted as part of future regulations and it explores different ways that could be followed to ensure a sufficient level of protection to the vulnerable Arctic environment.

Its most important recommendations are:

  • Black carbon is one particular compound of the pollutants emitted by ships during their operations. It is a strong climate-forcing agent that particularly impacts the Arctic, when the dark particles land on pristine snow or ice and thus increase the warming and melting of these surfaces. The shipping community needs to recognise the potentially devastating effects of this pollutant as shipping develops in the Arctic and adopt a set of regulations to properly address these emissions.
  • Shipping currently uses the dirtiest fuel of any transport sector. The combustion of heavy fuel oil results in high emissions of air pollutants and its release can have catastrophic effects on ecosystems in the case of an oil spill or a ship accident. The use and the carriage of heavy fuel oil has been already banned in the Antarctic for environmental reasons; this regulation should also apply in the Arctic.
  • As the Arctic sea ice melts, we can expect non ice-class vessels to engage in Arctic sea routes. Minimising the risk of accidents for these ships that were not specifically designed for ice operations (i.e. without hull strengthening, etc.) will therefore be crucial to ensure both safe and environmentally sound activities. Regulating ship speed can be an important element in this by reducing risks all round.
  • The EU is a major player in Arctic shipping as most ships active in the area will arrive or depart from an EU port. The EU says it wishes to play a commensurate role in protecting the Arctic but is yet to translate words into deeds. Should international efforts to protect the Arctic environment from the effects of increased shipping fail, the EU will need to muster the political will to match its legal rights and ensure an appropriate and effective level of environmental protection.