Arctic thaw will open cheaper, greener shipping routes

As chunks of Arctic ice melt into the sea due to rising temperatures brought about by climate change, scientists believe that shorter, more eco-friendly maritime trade routes could be established along the newly formed waters.

The routes could also bypass the Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route, say Brown University researchers said.

Climate models show that parts of the Arctic that were once covered in ice year-round are warming so quickly that they will be reliably ice-free for months on end in as little as two decades.

Projections show that by 2065, the Arctic’s navigability will increase so greatly that it could yield new trade routes in international waters – not only reducing the shipping industry’s carbon footprint but also weakening Russia’s control over trade in the Arctic.

“There’s no scenario in which melting ice in the Arctic is good news,” said Amanda Lynch, the study’s lead author. “But the unfortunate reality is that the ice is already retreating, these routes are opening up, and we need to start thinking critically about the legal, environmental and geopolitical implications.”

The researchers modelled four navigation scenarios based on four likely outcomes of global actions to halt climate change in the coming years.

Their projections showed that unless global leaders successfully constrain warming to 1.5°C over the next 43 years, climate change will likely open up several new routes through international waters by the middle of this century.

Charles Norchi, a director of the Center for Oceans and Coastal Law at Maine Law, and one of the study’s co-authors, said the changes could have major implications for world trade and global politics.

Since 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has given Arctic coastal states enhanced authority over primary shipping routes. Norchi said that for decades, Russia has been using these rules for its own economic and geopolitical interests.

One Russian law requires all vessels passing through the Northern Sea Route to be piloted by Russians. The country also requires that passing vessels pay tolls and provide advance notice of their plans to use the route.

The heavy regulation is one among many reasons why major shipping companies often bypass the route and instead use the Suez and Panama canals – longer, but cheaper and easier, trade routes.

But as the ice near Russia’s northern coast begins to melt, Norchi said, so will the country’s grip on shipping through the Arctic Ocean.

“The Russians will, I’m sure, continue to invoke Article 234, which they will attempt to back up with their might,” Norchi said. “But they will be challenged by the international community, because Article 234 will cease to be applicable if there’s no ice covered-area for most of the year. Not only that, but with melting ice, shipping will move out of Russian territorial waters and into international waters. If that happens, Russia can’t do much, because the outcome is driven by climate change and shipping economics.”

Previous studies have shown that Arctic routes are 30 to 50 per cent shorter than the Suez Canal and Panama Canal routes, with transit time reduced by an estimated 14 to 20 days. That means that if international Arctic waters warm enough to open up new pathways, shipping companies could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by about 24 per cent while also saving money and time.

“These potential new Arctic routes are a useful thing to consider when you recall the moment when the Ever Given ship was stranded in the Suez Canal, blocking an important shipping route for several weeks,” Lynch said.

“Diversifying trade routes — especially considering new routes that can’t be blocked, because they’re not canals — gives the global shipping infrastructure a lot more resiliency.”

“Flagging these coming changes now could help prevent them from emerging as a crisis that has to be resolved rapidly, which almost never turns out well.

“To actually craft international agreements with some forethought and deliberation is certainly a better way to go.”

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