Green light for environment rules in new polar shipping code

30 October 2014

A UN body in October signed off on the environmental provisions of a mandatory code for ships operating in Arctic and Antarctic waters. The new rules will govern a range of issues relevant to the safe navigation of the icy waters surrounding the world’s two poles and without causing lasting ecological damage.

The prevention of pollution from oil discharge by ships, noxious liquid, sewage, and garbage were among the provisions approved by the International Maritime Organization (IMO)’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), as the body is formally known.

The committee also gave the green light to recommendations for ships operating in the polar regions to refrain from carrying heavy fuel oil as cargo and another to apply international standards on the control and management of ships’ ballast water.

The provisions will form part of a new draft International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters, otherwise known as the Polar Code, geared towards setting binding international standards for such shipping activities.

The IMO, a specialised agency of the UN, has been working to develop the Polar Code since the adoption of voluntary guidelines on sustainable polar shipping by the body’s General Assembly in 2009.

MEPC’s approval of the environmental provisions follows agreement on the safety-related part of the Polar Code by the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) earlier in the year.

Both committees will now move to adopt the complete package next spring. Following ratification processes the new rules will enter into force on 1 January 2017. The Polar Code will be made mandatory through amendments to both the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).

New trade routes?

The move to develop a Polar Code was prompted by forecasts of increased shipping activity in Arctic and Antarctic waters considered to be harsh, remote, and vulnerable to pollution.

The Northern Sea route for example, a shipping lane offering a faster connection between Europe and Asia, has seen a tenfold increase in the number of vessels in recent years according to the IMO.

Recent data from the Arctic Institute, a Washington based think tank, indicates that 71 ships carried 1.35 million tonnes of goods through the route last year, up from 46 vessels transporting 1.26 million tonnes in 2012. Much of this was dedicated to the transport of oil products, the report also confirmed.

Countries such as Russia allegedly expect a 30-fold increase in shipping through the route by the end of the decade and almost ice-free water across much of it by mid-century.

Meanwhile however, ships operating in such Arctic and Antarctic environments are exposed to a number of exceptional risks, including poor and volatile weather conditions and plunging temperatures that may impair ship function.

“The uncertainty doesn’t really make it feasible for global cargo where you need to book months in ahead,” Arctic Institute executive director Malte Humpert also recently warned, stressing that variability in ice conditions can make for perilous journeys.

Consequently, the risk of titanic-like disasters poses a significant hazard for the region’s unique ecosystem, and cleaning up oil spills would be a mammoth undertaking. Mounting pollution from increased shipping traffic would also threaten the Arctic’s fragile biodiversity, according to the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, a report released by a working group of the Arctic Council.

Environmentally sound?

In the months leading up to the approval of the Polar Code’s environmental provisions some commentators said that the draft was not comprehensive enough.

Following the recent decision, conservation group WWF welcomed the step towards a binding polar shipping rules, but said that the draft code did not address some key areas.

“Many of the environmental provisions need to be strengthened before the Polar Code is finalised,” wrote Paul Crowley, head of the organisation’s Canadian Arctic Programme, in an op-ed earlier this month.

Among other things, environmental groups point to the absence of a prohibition on using heavy fuel oils to power ships through the Arctic, although this is already banned in the Antarctic.

Ship noise, which might disturb marine wildlife in particular, remains untended to in the new rules say some conservationists while others stress that black carbon emissions, one of the most harmful air pollutants, are also side-stepped at this stage.

ICTSD reporting; “Arctic Shipping Volume Rises as Ice Melts,” THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, 29 October 2014; “Cold passage,” OPEN KNOWLEDGE, 15 April 2014; “Polar Code Definitions are Cause for Concern,” THE MARTIME EXECUTIVE, 8 August 2014; “IMO completes Polar Code environmental rules,” ALASKA DISPATCH NEWS, 24 October 2014. 

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