Unconventional wisdom on Arctic shipping

In this first of two blog posts, policy officer for clean shipping, Antoine Kedzierski questions the wisdom of some often-repeated statements on Arctic shipping and looks at the urgent need for decisive progress on the Polar Code.

When reading articles and attending conferences discussing the opening of shipping routes in the Arctic region, the same figures and conclusions often pop up. After being repeated in a number of articles and presentations, at some point, these conclusions become conventional wisdom. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, but from time to time it is worth looking at the information that we all take for granted to make sure that these commonly heard messages are, in fact, wisdom.

 1.      Sea ice melting leads to a rapid growth in shipping activities.

True. There is, I think, very little disagreement on this point. The Arctic is warming twice as rapidly as the rest of the planet. In September 2012, for the first year since satellite measurements began, the Arctic sea ice extent dropped below four million square kilometers. That number still sounds huge, – but in fact it is just slightly more than half of the average extent between 1979 and 2010.  At the same time, shipping activities are booming. Of course, the level of shipping traffic in the Arctic is nothing compared to the Panama or the Suez canals, but it is growing with double-digit growth figures. In 2012, around 1.26 million tonnes of cargo were transported on the Northern Sea Route (NSR), a 53 per cent increase over 2011.

 2.      Most of Arctic shipping is trans-polar shipping.

False. The Northwest Passage (over Canada) and the Northern Sea Route (over Russia) are two legendary sea routes and people tend to focus on the growth opportunities that their openings represent. However, in reality, Arctic shipping is more diverse. In 2009, the Arctic Council undertook a comprehensive inventory and established that approximately 3,000 ships were operating in the Arctic Ocean in 2004 (excl. the Pacific’s Great Circle Route between Alaska and Asia). It also concluded that ship activities in the region were dominated by fishing (50%) and community re-supply, etc. Shipping activities are therefore very important in the region, but trans-polar routes constitute only a small but rapidly growing fraction of the total.

3.      Trans-polar routes are a short cut.

Sometimes. It is widely repeated that the Arctic sea routes are supposed to cut distances and time at sea by up to 40%. But actually, it depends. In order to establish whether the Northern Sea Route (NSR) is a real short cut between Asia and Europe, you need to first look at the ports you are talking about. If you want to go to Rotterdam, for instance, and are leaving from Taiwan, then the distance is about the same on the NSR and via the Suez Canal. If you factor in the lower average speed on the Arctic routes (where some ice-breaking may be necessary, etc.), then you may actually spend between 5 and 10 more days on the NSR! Trans-polar routes can be a short cut, but it’s not a given.

4.      The NSR is the future for European imports.

False. Most of the time, the Arctic trans-polar routes are presented as the future “motorways of globalization” - the short cut for Europeans to import their manufactured goods from Asia. If you look at the use of the NSR in 2012, the figures will tell you a different story. Firstly, most of the trade went eastbound (75%), and about half of the ships which were travelling westbound were actually empty! It rather looks like a one-way motorway. The data shows us that European countries are almost insignificant if you look at the top exporters and importers on the NSR in 2012. In reality, the NSR is mainly used by Russia: more than 80% of the trade on the route went to or from Murmansk and the majority of the ships navigating westbound did not even sail further west than this port.

5.      It’s safer to use the Northern Sea Route than to take the Suez Canal.

False. The recrudescence of piracy around the coast of Somalia has seriously damaged the reputation of the Suez Canal. Some analysts already see the opening of the Arctic sea routes as a way to ensure safer transit between Europe and the Pacific. While piracy is less of an issue in the High North, the dangers in the Arctic are actually of a different nature. Navigation charts of the Arctic waters are, in fact, not detailed enough; the “ice-free” waters in the summer months are often still dangerous, etc. Even given current shipping levels, accidents are relatively frequent in the Arctic; from 1995 to 2004, nearly 300 accidents and incidents occurred in the region.

6.      As a short cut, transpolar routes are more environmentally friendly as they save emissions.

False. Whilst it is true that distances are shortened for certain specific routes, the net impact of overall fuel consumption and CO2 is uncertain because of rebound effects – if sea transport becomes cheaper, more of it becomes economically viable. Moreover, the perceived economic benefit of shorter journeys needs to be weighed against the significant additional environmental impacts. The growing emission of black carbon in this particularly sensitive environment would have disastrous environmental consequences. But emissions to air are not the only environmental concern: the legally permissible or accidental discharges of oil, sewage and chemicals, as well as underwater noise disturbances and introduction of invasive species will all have a significant impact on this sensitive ecosystem.

Last week, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) held a meeting of its sub-committee in charge of developing the Polar Code - a proposed international code of safety for ships operating in polar waters. It was crunch time for the Arctic region. Rapid decisions were necessary to include strong safety and environmental regulations for ships sailing in the most fragile ecosystem on the planet, but the IMO failed to reach consensus on the most contentious issues, namely the ban of heavy fuel oils in the Arctic and a regulation of black carbon. The consequences of this decision will be analysed in a second blog post in the following days.

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About the author

Antoine Kedzierski's picture

Policy Officer