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Though often seen as a new possible area of development for shipping companies, the chief executive of the Danish giant Maersk says opportunities for the container business on the routes will be limited in the next 15-20 years. However, T&E is still concerned about the environmental impact of shipping using the Northern Sea Route north of Russia and the Northwest Passage north of Canada.
For the past century, ships crossing the globe have normally used either the Panama or Suez canals. But in recent years, global warming has reduced the amount of ice around the North Pole by about half, which has opened new routes in the summer months. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) has seen a dramatic rise in journeys from two in 2009 to 46 last year. With rules on emissions and dumping harmful substances into the water hard to enforce in such inhospitable areas, fears have been growing for the delicate ecosystems in the Arctic Circle.
In an interview in the Financial Times, the head of Maersk, Nils Andersen, said: ‘The way global warming is going, there is the opportunity in a very far, very distant future that the NSR will open up and it will be a major shipping route. But it will definitely not be within the next 15 to 20 years, so it’s far too early to start constructing vessels for it.’
T&E’s shipping officer Antoine Kedzierski said: ‘Even if container lines do not see a business opening now, activities on the route are booming. This year more than 200 permits were issued to use the NSR. It is reassuring to hear a leading figure in global shipping stress the severe limitations of the Arctic routes, but we should think now about the risks due to the traffic increases that we are seeing today. Look at the Exxon Valdez: it doesn’t take a lot of ships to create dramatic impacts. In any case, the IMO should now use the opportunity to properly regulate Arctic operations, while traffic is still manageable.’
The International Maritime Organisation is currently working on a ‘polar code’, which should have been ready by last year but is now not expected until 2015.
Meanwhile, T&E has joined 150 organisations in calling for the release of 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists being detained in Russia. Coastguards stormed their vessel, the Arctic Sunrise, in mid-September during a protest against an Arctic oil rig operated by energy giant Gazprom. Russian authorities have dropped piracy charges but the 30 are still charged with hooliganism, which carries a potential jail sentence of up to seven years.