Melting Arctic ice could transform international shipping routes, study finds
According to Charles Norchi — director of the Center for Oceans and Coastal Law at Maine Law, visiting fellow at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, and one of the study’s co-authors — these changes could have major implications for global trade and world politics.
Norchi explained that since 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has given Arctic coastal states greater authority over major shipping routes. Article 234 of the convention states that in the name of “the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from ships”, countries whose coasts are close to Arctic shipping lanes have the ability to regulate shipping traffic from the route, as long as the area remains ice. – covered for most of the year.
Norchi said that for decades Russia has used Article 234 for its own economic and geopolitical interests. A Russian law requires that all ships passing through the Northern Sea Route be piloted by Russians. The country also requires passing vessels to pay tolls and notify in advance of their intention to use the route. Heavy regulation is one of the many reasons why major shipping lines often bypass heavy regulations and high route costs and instead use the Suez and Panama Canals – longer, but cheaper trade routes and easier.
But as the ice near Russia’s northern coast begins to melt, Norchi said, so will the country’s grip on shipping in the Arctic Ocean.
“The Russians will, I’m sure, continue to invoke Article 234, which they will try to support with their might,” Norchi said. “But they will be challenged by the international community, because Article 234 will cease to apply if there is no ice-covered area for most of the year. Not only that, but with the ice melting, shipping will leave Russian territorial waters and head towards international waters. If that happens, there’s not much Russia can do, because the outcome depends on climate change and shipping economics.
According to Lynch, previous studies have shown that Arctic routes are 30 to 50 percent shorter than Suez Canal and Panama Canal routes, with transit time reduced by around 14 to 20 days. This means that if the international waters of the Arctic warm enough to open up new routes, shipping companies could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by around 24% while saving money and time.
“These potential new Arctic routes are a useful thing to consider when you remember when the ship Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal, blocking an important shipping route for several weeks,” Lynch said. “Diversifying trade routes – especially taking into account new routes that cannot be blocked, as they are not canals – gives the global maritime infrastructure much more resilience.”
And it’s better to ask questions about the future of shipping now, Lynch said, rather than later, given the time it will take to establish international laws. (For context, she said, it took the world’s governments 10 years to negotiate the Law of the Sea Convention.) Lynch hopes to start the conversation about the commercial future of the Arctic with Well-documented research could help world leaders make informed decisions. on protecting the Earth’s climate from future damage.
“Signaling these upcoming changes now could help prevent them from turning into a crisis that needs to be resolved quickly, which almost never goes well,” Lynch said. “To actually design international agreements with some forethought and deliberation is certainly a better way to go.”