New Polar Code ‘too weak’ to protect polar environments

The world’s first code of conduct for ships using the newly accessible Arctic shipping routes has been agreed, but environmental groups say it does not go far enough and, without further strengthening, it is just a question of when a serious incident occurs in the Arctic and Antarctic environments.

East-west shipping routes that used to be impassable all year have now become open to an extent during the brief summer months because of melting polar ice caps caused by global warming. In 2010 four ships navigated the Northern Sea Route to the north of Russia, and by 2013 it was 71. Pressure from insurers, some countries and environmental groups forced the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to draw up a Polar Code, which was agreed in mid-November.
 
The Polar Code establishes mandatory rules for the management of shipping in Arctic and Antarctic polar waters for the first time. The Code will contain regulations requiring that ship operators limit entry into ice according to the ability of their ship to resist ice pressure, but major concerns remain due to the fact that non-ice strengthened ships will be allowed to operate in ice covered waters without any strengthening provisions whatsoever.
 
The Clean Shipping Coalition (CSC), of which T&E is a member, said the code as it stands is a major disappointment. It falls far short of what is required and is an abrogation of the IMO’s responsibility to protect polar environments, the coalition said.
 
John Maggs, president of the CSC and senior policy advisor Seas At Risk, said: ‘The purpose of developing the code was to make sure that increased polar shipping activity as a result of climate change did not put lives and the environment at risk. Yet without urgent further strengthening of the code, it is just a question of when, not if, an incident occurs, with serious consequences for the delicate Arctic and Antarctic environments.’
 
While the carriage and use of heavy fuel oil by ships is banned in Antarctic waters, the IMO simply refused to even enter into a discussion of the dangers of oil spills from shipping which the Arctic Council has identified as the greatest environmental threat to the Arctic. Environmental groups also have serious concerns about how effectively the code will be enforced.
 
Sotiris Raptis, policy officer for shipping at T&E, said: ‘The Polar Code allows vessels to operate with inadequate ice-strengthening and structural stability as well as the use of noxious heavy fuel oil in the Arctic. It only takes one oil spill to have severe irreversible effects on the sensitive Arctic environment and the code offers no response to that. It fails to enforce adequate measures which would avert incidents.’
 
Adoption has focused on part I of the Polar Code, which addresses the safety of shipping in polar waters. Part II of the Polar Code, on discharges of pollution from ships, is likely to be adopted in May 2015. The Polar Code is due to enter into force on 1 January 2017, with further negotiation on pollution prevention and other vessels (including fishing vessels) taking place in May 2015 and 2016 respectively.
 
Requirements for ships to avoid marine mammals such as whales and walruses are also included, but the code fails to consider seabird colonies, despite the fact that the Arctic and Antarctic coastlines contain some of the most significant bird colonies in the world.