In February 2021, Christophe de Margerie, a Russian gas tanker, navigated the icy waters of the northern sea route in mid-winter. He made history as he was the first one to do so.
The voyage, from Jiangsu in China to a remote Arctic port in Siberia, was heralded as the beginning of a new era that could reshape global shipping routes, cutting the travel times between Asia and Europe by more than a third.
Climate Change Opens New Routes
The voyage has been made possible by the climate crisis. The shrinking polar ice has allowed the shipping traffic in the Arctic to increase 25% between 2013 and 2019, and the growth is expected to continue, according to The Guardian.
However, arctic shipping is not only made possible by the climate crisis because it is adding to it as well. More ships on the new routes mean a rise in exhaust fumes, which makes the ice melt faster.
This is due to a complex phenomenon involving black carbon, which is an air pollutant formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels.
When black carbon, also called soot, lands on snow and ice, it speeds up melting. Dark snow and ice, by absorbing more energy, melt faster than heat-reflecting white snow, which makes warming so much faster.
The environmentalists warn that the Arctic, which is warming four times faster than usual, has seen an 85% rise in black carbon from ships between 2015 and 2019, due to the increase in oil tankers and bulk carriers.
The particles, which exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular illness in towns, are short-term but potent climate agents, and they also represent 20% of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from ships, according to ICCT.
However, unlike other transport sectors, including road, rail, and inland waterways, where air-quality standards curb emissions, there are no regulations that exist for shipping.
In November 2021, the International Maritime Organization or IMO adopted a resolution on the use of cleaner fuels in the Arctic in an attempt to reduce black carbon, but left it voluntarily.
Environmental Groups Warned of Climate Crisis in the Arctic
The IMO was in the spotlight in early April after a coalition of environmental groups warned a meeting of its pollution, prevention and response subcommittee that its resolution did a bit to tackle the Arctic’s climate crisis.
They submitted a paper calling on governments to agree to mandatory regulations to reduce the shipping emissions of black carbon in the region.
Dr. Lucy Gilliam, the senior shipping policy officer of Seas at Risk, said that we are hitting a cascading tipping point for the climate.
With the IPPC report, we see again why the governments need to do something about black carbon urgently.
On Apr. 4, scientists from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC warned it was now or never for action to stave off climate breakdown.
The scientists concluded that the international community was underperforming on climate commitments, but singled out the shipping sector and the IMO.
The pollution from global shipping increased by 4.9% in 2021, according to a report published by shipbrokers Simpson Spence Young.
Dr. Sian Prior, the lead adviser to the Clean Arctic Alliance, said that IMO member states must agree on urgent global action to reduce the ship-source black carbon emissions and in order to mitigate the climate crisis in the Arctic.
Clean Arctic Alliance is a coalition of 21 non-profit groups lobbying governments that protect Arctic wildlife and people. Dr. Prior urged the states and regions to do their part by acting immediately to cut black carbon from ships.
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Written by Sophie Webster
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