Increased Arctic shipping threatens the environment

No soot please!  Photos: JumpyJodes/ BY and Roberto Venturini/ BY


Unless action is taken, the increase in shipping and other human activities in the sensitive Arctic ecosystem is likely to cause irreversible damage.

Recent research indicates the Arctic sea 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 in September this year.

Shipping activities are set to increase as the melting of Arctic ice accelerates. This will lead to increased emissions that will exacerbate Arctic melting and pose a growing threat to the environment in the region. In a new report, Transport & Environment (T&E) pinpoints the problems, suggests measures for how to reduce the environmental impact of shipping in the Arctic and urges the EU to take serious action to ensure the unique Arctic ecosystem survives.
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.”

In 2008, the international community recognised the possible threats that Arctic shipping could pose and commenced work on the so-called Polar Code, 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 from 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,” Kedzierski added. “At the end of the day, the EU 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.”

In the report T&E 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 on ecosystems.
  • Require ships to operate at slower speeds. Such a measure would minimise the risk of accidents and bring huge safety and environmental benefits.

Source: T&E press release 27 September, 2012.
Troubled waters: How to protect the Arctic from the growing impact of shipping. Published by Transport & Environment in September 2012. Available at:


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