U.N. finalizes Polar Shipping Code after six years

U.N. finalizes Polar Shipping Code after six years

IMO adopts several important protections but lacks vital heavy fuel use ban in the Arctic

LONDON, U.K. – The International Maritime Organization — the U.N. agency charged with establishing global shipping standards — adopted the environmental component of the Polar Code, a suite of mandatory measures governing Arctic and Antarctic shipping. This development follows the adoption of the safety portion of the Code in November 2014. The realization of a code for polar shipping has been a process long in the making, from an initial proposal in the 1990s, to IMO-sanctioned voluntary guidelines for Arctic shipping in 2002, to revisions in 2009 to include Antarctic shipping. By 2009, the U.S., Norway and Denmark believed that stronger provisions were needed in light of anticipated increases in polar shipping and requested that the IMO begin developing a mandatory code for the Polar regions.

Friends of the Earth has engaged in negotiations on the Polar Code since the outset of in-depth discussions in 2010, and is pleased to see them come to fruition.  Environmental deliberations were slow to commence, only beginning in earnest several years into the process. The environmental portion of the Polar Code will include some noteworthy elements, such as a ban on the operational discharge of oil and chemicals and enhanced standards associated with disposal of sewage and garbage into polar seas.  Moreover, voyage planning provisions to safeguard marine mammals — already established in the safety portion of the Code — will provide additional conservation protection. These provisions will be the first species-specific measures that explicitly extend beyond whales and thus will also pertain to sea lions, seals and walrus.

Unfortunately, the IMO omitted many important issues from the environmental portion of the Code. Namely, heavy fuel oil use by vessels in the Arctic is not banned (though it was for the Antarctic in 2010), despite strong policy and environmental arguments put forward by Friends of the Earth and allied NGOs.  Eliminating heavy fuel oil use in the region, for example, would have the dual benefit of reducing oil spill damage risk and decreasing black carbon emissions. Other omissions in the Code include mandatory invasive species protections, graywater restrictions, underwater noise abatement and sufficient oil spill response requirements. Nevertheless, while the IMO did not integrate these issues within this phase of the Polar Code — which dealt with larger ships like cruise liners, bulk carriers and oil tankers — negotiators will have an opportunity to address these types of issues in phase two of the Code, which will succeed today’s adoption and include additional categories of ships such as fishing vessels, yachts and specialized craft.

John Kaltenstein, marine policy analyst at Friends of the Earth and participant in the IMO negotiations, commented on the need for greater environmental regulations to strengthen the Code:

“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,” Kaltenstein said.


Expert contact: John Kaltenstein, [email protected]
Communications contact: Kate Colwell, (202) 222-0744, [email protected]

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