Arctic summer sea ice extent reached an all-time record low on September 16. The rapid nature of the changes in the region has many scientists concerned, and the implications on weather systems and marine ecosystems could be profound. The shipping sector, though, sees the effect of climate change on the Arctic including sea ice loss as a potential boon, enabling greater access to natural resources and opening shorter trade routes between commercial hubs in the Northern Hemisphere. Countries also are collaborating and entering into agreements with the hope of furthering trade relations and commercial prospects. Fortunately, there has been talk of increased Arctic shipping occurring in an environmentally sustainable and responsible manner, but much work needs to be done to ensure proper regulations are put in place. Often, the best way to address ship pollution is through multilateral entities, since shipping enjoys substantial navigational rights and privileges enshrined in international law that render unilateral efforts by countries insufficient or illegal.
The two most important bodies with respect to Arctic shipping development are the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a specialized UN agency that regulates the sector, and the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum composed of the eight Arctic Nations and six Arctic tribal associations as well as observers. Friends of the Earth, acting through its international federation Friends of the Earth-International, has been an influential environmental voice at the IMO for many years, most recently advocating for and achieving stronger air emission rules for North America. The Arctic Council is increasingly playing a pivotal role in Arctic shipping matters. The Council released a comprehensive report on Arctic shipping in 2009 and since then has been monitoring the implementation of the report’s 17 recommendations, many of which fall under the purview of the IMO. In addition, Council working groups have finalized or are drafting reports on marine resources and associated threats, including the use of bunker fuel by ships, and important ecological and cultural areas in the region. Some environmental groups attend Arctic Council meetings, of which there are many, but there have been no sustained, concerted efforts to engage on shipping issues. Because a good portion of the Arctic Council’s work now affects outcomes at the IMO, including development of the Polar Code, which Friends of the Earth has been engaged in and advocating on for over two years, advocacy at the Council is becoming imperative. That’s why Friends of the Earth is reaching out to, and coordinating with, environmental partners that are active in Council proceedings to assure that due attention is being given to shipping matters, which could play a critical role in shaping the nature of Arctic shipping now and in the future.
Image credit: Sea Ice Extent, 9/16/2012 – National Snow & Ice Data Center, Boulder CO