Melting Arctic ice could transform international trade routes and weaken Russia’s grip on Arctic shipping

With climate change rapidly opening up the Arctic to shipping, new trade routes could help reduce the carbon footprint of the shipping industry and also weaken Russia’s control in the region, according to a new study by Brown University.

For the study, which was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a pair of Brown University climatologists worked with a University of Maine Law School jurist to predict how melting Arctic Ocean ice could affect the regulation of shipping routes in the coming decades. . They predicted that by 2065, the seaworthiness of the Arctic will increase so much that it could create new trade routes in international waters, not only reducing the carbon footprint of the shipping industry, but also weakening the Russian control over trade in the Arctic.

“There is no scenario in which melting ice in the Arctic is good news,” said Amanda Lynch, lead author of the study and professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences. to Brown. “But the sad reality is that the ice is already receding, these roads are opening up and we need to start thinking critically about the legal, environmental and geopolitical implications.”

Lynch, who has studied climate change in the Arctic for nearly 30 years, worked with Xueke Li, a postdoctoral research associate at the Brown Institute for Environment and Society, to model four navigation scenarios based on four likely outcomes of global action to stop the climate. change in the years to come. Their projections showed that unless world leaders succeed in limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next 43 years, climate change will likely open up several new routes through international waters by the middle of this century.

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.

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.

Previous studies have shown that Arctic routes are 30-50% shorter than Suez Canal and Panama Canal routes, with reduced transit time of approximately 14-20 days. This means that if the international waters of the Arctic warm enough to open new routes, shipping companies could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by around 24% compared to traditional routes, while saving time and money.

“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.”

Lynch hopes that starting the conversation about the commercial future of the Arctic with well-researched research could help world leaders make informed decisions about protecting the Earth’s climate from future harm.

“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.”

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