SOS Arctic: New report highlights environmental threat from increased shipping activities

Shipping activities are set to increase as the melting of Arctic ice accelerates. This will lead to increased emissions which will exacerbate Arctic melting and pose a growing threat to the environment in the region. In a new report published today, entitled ‘Troubled Waters’ (1), sustainable transport campaigners T&E sound the alarm making recommendations on how to reduce the impact of shipping in the Arctic and urging the EU to take serious action to ensure the unique Arctic ecosystem survives.

Recent research indicates the Arctic could be completely ice-free in the next thirty to forty years, and some scientists even suggest this may happen by the end of this decade. The lowest level of sea-ice ever recorded was registered this month (2).

Industry and governments see the melting ice as an opportunity for oil and gas extraction, mining, tourism and the development of other human activities. This would require more and more ships operating in Arctic waters with potentially catastrophic effects for that fragile ecosystem and a serious threat for the global environment.

“While Arctic melting is certainly an effect of climate change, we don’t want it to be a cause of it as well”, says Antoine Kedzierski, T&E policy officer for shipping. “The vicious circle that makes the ice melt, allowing more ships in the Arctic and again causing ice melting must be broken”.

The opening of Arctic sea routes – the Northwest passage along the coast of Canada and the Northern Sea route in Russia – has the potential to shorten distances between Asia, North America and Europe. These sea routes could attract a significant amount of international shipping traffic, even up to 10% of the total container trade between Asia and Europe by 2050, according to recent models.

In 2008, the international community recognised the possible threats that Arctic shipping could pose and commenced work on the so-called Polar Code (3),  to mandate enhanced safety and environmental regulations for shipping activities in polar waters. The safety provisions of the draft code are well advanced but work on the environmental chapter has stalled. In a communication dated June 2012, the European Commission confirmed its commitment to address the growing issue of shipping emissions in the Arctic area, but failed to set out specific actions for the EU to pursue. So far a tangible commitment by the EU to ensure the inclusion of strong environmental provisions in the Polar Code is missing.

“The EU must take the lead in Arctic environmental protection. Talk is cheap but tough action is what’s needed”, Kedzierski added. “At the end of the day, the European Union is responsible for most of the shipping emissions in the Arctic, in that the majority of Arctic shipping departs or arrives at EU ports. Action on black carbon emissions from shipping is urgent and a strong polar code is vital to ensure the highest safety and environmental standards are observed. Tomorrow will be too late”.

The report suggests three priority measures to reduce the impact of shipping in the Arctic:

  • cut shipping emissions of black carbon, which absorbs heat from the sun and is one of the main causes of ice melting in the region;
  • ban the use by shipping of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters, as has already been implemented in the Antarctic. This oil produces more toxic air pollutants and in the case of an oil spill would have catastrophic effects.
  • require ships to operate at slower speeds. Such a measure would minimise the risk of accidents and bring huge safety and environmental benefits.

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