Environmental code established to counter rise in Arctic shipping

Signal of change / Environmental code established to counter rise in Arctic shipping

By Gillian Phair / 27 May 2015

New international environmental guidelines have been established to regulate the pollution caused by large ships navigating through the Arctic Ocean. 


The Polar Code has been established by the UN International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in conjunction with Arctic countries and the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS). It will require cruise liners, oil tankers and bulk carrier ships to undergo voyage planning in order to protect marine life; however, any disaster involving oil spillage will have a catastrophic impact nonetheless. 

The IMO released these guidelines to follow the safety portion of the Polar Code (published in November 2014), which it plans to implement in full from 1 January 2017 onwards. From this time, it will also ban discharge of chemicals and oil into arctic waters, and set tighter guidelines on disposal of sewage and garbage. At present, the disposal requirements are not as strict as the Marpol Annex V rules governing ships in the Mediterranean and English channel. 

Before implementation, an operational ship manual will be created, and an assessment and certification process will be established to designate where, when and how ships can operate in the Arctic. The Code will make it easier for a ship to gain a polar navigation certificate, without necessarily having to undergo inspection. 


The Polar Code has been criticised for failing to confront the use of heavy fuel oil and regulate against cowboy operators. To put this in context, the use of heavy fuels was banned in the Antarctic in 2010. Critics also note that the code lacks protective measure for invasive species, restrictions for greywater disposal, measures to reduce underwater noise and satisfactory protocols for oil spill response. 


A further criticism is that the Code only applies to ships that are on international voyages. This means it does not apply to the most high-risk ships in the region, such as off-shore support vessels that run between oil rigs and ships, fishing vessels and national register ships trading between ports within a country in polar waters. Cruise ships moving along national coastlines are also exempt. 


The IMO will have the opportunity to revisit the Polar Code after a minimum of two years.


Signal spotted by Gillian Phair
Image: Melt and mobility
Image credit: Open knowledge / Allianz
Corrections to this Signal of Change were made on 3 June 2015. 

So what?

The Arctic is witnessing growing pressure from shipping, fishing, tourism and oil and gas exploration industries. According to the IMO, the numbers of vessels using the Northern Sea route increased from 4 to 71 per year between 2010 and 2013, with an expected 30-fold rise in this number by 2020. Furthermore, the Polar Research Institute of China predict around $500 billion of the nation’s trade value will pass through the arctic by 2020.


The Arctic is far from the unexplored and untouched region that it was a century ago - in fact, it has been dubbed the new silk road. 


This Code comes at a crucial time where strict regulation could help protect the future of this sensitive ecosystem. John Kaltenstein, a marine policy analyst at Friends of the Earth, has commented: “Increased shipping in the Arctic - which is experiencing the acute effects of climate change - threatens the region’s ecology, its residents and their traditional subsistence practices. The IMO must include measures that are precautionary, comprehensive and robust in order to truly protect the region from the impacts of shipping.” 

But is the regulation strict enough? The criticisms listed above (its application to only trips on international voyages; the absence of measures to protect marine life; the greater ease of certification for Arctic voyages; relatively light waste disposal regulation) suggest not. Will it merely serve to increase the flow of traffic, without offering sufficient environmental protection?  


The clearing ice of Arctic passageway marks a significant advance of modern climate change and will allow for a shift in trade networks, where the dangers of navigating through ice are lesser than the dangers of confronting pirates when travelling the Suez Canal route. The increasing viability of this arctic route will open new trade networks, likely to benefit northern council states including Russia, Canada and Norway. 


Moreover, this Arctic provides a much more direct route between Europe and China; the journey between Shanghai to Hamburg is 2,800 nautical miles (5,185 kms) longer when traveling through the Suez Canal. In considering that large ship engines can consume 380 tons of fuel per day, the Northern route would save several tons of fuel use and greenhouse emissions. However, without tackling the use of heavy fuels, there is greater risk of oil spills and black carbon emissions. 


Ahead of its launch, many questions remain about the Polar Code. How will implementation be monitored in this vast unhospitable environment? Given the exponential projections of ship navigation in the arctic by 2020, will enforcement of these regulations be enough to prevent environmental and ecological degradation?




BBC (2015, May 16) Arctic pollution rules 'not enough'

Helenic Shipping News (2015, May 16) U.N. finalizes Polar Shipping Code after six years: IMO adopts several important protections but lacks vital heavy fuel use ban in the Arctic


What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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