‘Decoding’ the Polar Code

May 3, 2013

In this second of two blog posts, policy officer for clean shipping, Antoine Kedzierski looks back at the origins of the Polar Code, the international code of safety for shipping in Polar waters, the recent International Maritime Organisation (IMO) decision on the environmental chapter and what a robust Polar Code should look like.

Antoine’s previous blog set out the difficulties encountered when navigating through most of the ‘conventional wisdoms’ about Arctic shipping. One important overriding theme, however, pervades all these messages: as the Arctic ice melts, shipping activities there are reporting double-digit growth. Rapid action is therefore necessary to ensure maritime safety and guarantee environmental protection in this particularly fragile and unique ecosystem.

The premise of the Polar Code

The IMO came to a similar conclusion in 2002, when it adopted voluntary guidelines for ships operating in Arctic ice-covered waters. One thing is clear though: we cannot rely on a set of voluntary standards as the only instrument to effectively protect the polar environment.

Navigating in polar waters is an entirely different proposition to sailing the Caribbean or on the high seas, so a polar code has always made sense. With the startling reduction in Arctic sea ice and the rapid increase in Arctic shipping activities, it has now become vital. Timing is also extremely important. Prevention is better than cure, particularly in waters where the weather and general conditions are so hostile, remote and treacherous – not to mention so utterly different to the rest of the world. A precautionary approach needs to be adopted while current traffic levels remain manageable.

Sadly the reality is that too many regulators have lost their nerve in the face of determined industry and geo-political pressures. Procrastination makes easy things hard and hard things harder.

IMO’s work to develop a mandatory Polar Code started in 2010 with the delivery date initially set at 2012. After some early progress, experts following the work in London now conclude that nothing can realistically be expected before 2015.

Environmental priorities to protect the polar ecosystems

Consideration of environmental questions soon ran into delays and a growing lack of appetite as the high political and commercial stakes became clear. In 2012, work on the environmental chapter was completely abandoned for more than a year, ostensibly to give priority to safety questions. In the Arctic, meanwhile, the climate change clock is still ticking.

Experts point out that a number of important environmental issues need to be addressed, as well as areas where existing regulations are either lacking or fail to provide the same level of protection for the Arctic as is now in place in the Antarctic. Some of them were taken onboard in what is now a new draft environmental chapter adopted at the 2013 meeting of the IMO DE Sub-Committee, but others remain uncertain, in particular questions surrounding black carbon emissions and the use and the transport by ships operating in the Arctic of heavy fuel oil.

Cleaning the air to slow down climate change: the case of black carbon

Black carbon (BC) is now widely recognised as the second most important agent of climate change, after CO2. Its climate impact is magnified in ice-covered regions as black particles landing on pristine snow and ice reduce the reflection of these surfaces. This translates to increased heat absorption, which accelerates the melting of the ice-cap. At least one significant study suggests that black carbon may account for up to half of all Arctic warming [1].

Ships burning heavy fuel oil (HFO), the dirtiest fuel used in transport today, pose a significant and proximate source of black carbon emissions in Arctic waters. In short, Arctic melting presents the prospect of a vicious cycle opening new sea routes, whose activities in turn contribute to increasing the rate of ice melting.

A work plan on the shipping impacts of BC on the Arctic has been underway at the IMO for two years now, but is bogged down on basic questions such as definitions. No regulatory proposals are yet in sight. Moreover and regrettably, the IMO has so far declined to recognize the need to address the impact of ship BC emissions in the Antarctic.

No heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, just like in the Antarctic

The burning of HFO and carriage of crude oil in polar waters is a major concern given the catastrophic effects that a maritime oil spill would have there. Oil, certainly of the heaviest variety, stays for ages in cold conditions. The Exxon Valdez spill was 20 times smaller than the Deepwater Horizon and still wreaked long-term havoc on the ecosystems. Recognising these risks, the parties to the Antarctic Treaty moved well ahead on this issue and adopted a complete ban on the use and carriage of HFO back in 2005, which got confirmed in international law through MARPOL Annex I in 2010.

That’s why environmental NGOs call on the IMO to replicate the Antarctic ban in Arctic waters through the Polar Code. But the organization is dithering; in an economic sense the Arctic and the Antarctic are very different places, and this is used as a reason not to have the same level of environmental protection.

Three years on and the IMO has progressed on a number of key safety issues and seems ready to agree to strengthen safeguards on the discharge of sewage and oil in polar waters. However, the highly contentious issues of increased black carbon emissions from shipping and rising air pollution from burning heavy fuel oil, let alone the potentially disastrous effects of an oil spill in the region, seem to be difficult pills to swallow.

The forthcoming May meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee will again discuss the Polar Code. Regulators particularly from Europe, North America and the Antarctic Treaty should issue a strong call for rapid and robust progress. A robust Polar Code, which doesn’t address black carbon and heavy fuel oil, is hardly fit for purpose.

Will action once again require a disaster, Exxon Valdez-style? Let’s hope we have become a bit wiser.

[1] Shindell and Faluvegi (2009): “Climate response to regional radiative forcing during the twentieth century”, in Nature Geoscience, Vol 2, April 2009, pp 294-300.

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