Ahead of the recently completed G7 meeting in Biarritz, France ( 24-26 August) the French President Emanuel Macron called for shipping container lines not to use the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which — due to the warming of the climate — is now accessible almost all year round. The NSR runs along the full length of the Siberian Coast, connecting Asia and Europe. Its relative global isolation has meant, for example, that its unique biodiversity has remained largely unexplored and unexploited. While the route has had some historical use within the former USSR, in the last year cargo transit has risen dramatically to over 18 million tons (see image below). This is due both to increased access and because it is now strongly promoted by Russia as a faster, and more cost-effective route between Asia and Europe compared to Suez Canal.

cargo nsr 1920-2019
Sources: Polovinkin & Kyrlova (2012) at http://www.ibrae.ac.ru/docs/3(7)/74-83.pdf (1920-2012); CHIL Information Office, Nord University at arctic-lio.com (2011-2018)

Macron’s political will has led to France’s biggest — and the world’s fourth-largest — container line, CMA CGM, committing that none of its 500 vessels will use the NSR, despite it offering a “major competitive advantage”. This has sent a strong signal to the other market players, who are increasingly under the scrutiny of those that understand what a shipping highway could mean for the Arctic. In Macron’s own words:

This route will kill us in the end, because this route may well be quicker, but it is the consequence of our past irresponsibility.

Container ships still sail predominantly on Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO), which not only emits CO2 but also Black Carbon, SOx, NOx and Particulate Matter, just to name a few of the many air pollutants. And just to put things into perspective, an average-sized container ship can emit as much sulfur as 50 million cars. An increase of such emissions in the Arctic, whose ecosystems are already under tremendous pressure from rapid ecological and economic changes, could be catastrophic. A potential HFO spill could also be devastating. A sea highway for large ships could and will lead, to a higher risk of invasive species, noise pollution, and wildlife that could collide with the vessels.

Concerns include worries about invasive species introductions through e.g. hull fouling and ballast water (as discussed earlier on the blog here and here and here, as well as in articles by SDU MERE group and colleagues here and here) are not only ecological. Increased economic activity in the Arctic in shipping, fishing, oil and gas, mining, and tourism will bring dramatic changes to local communities. The impacts and distribution of benefits and costs of these changes will depend in large part on how infrastructure decisions in support of such increased activities are made.

These implications have been described and discussed in previous research (here and here) by SDU professors Brooks Kaiser (MERE), Julia Pahl (Engineering), and Chris Horbel (MERE/MOB) in two related chapters on port development in the Arctic. They (and others) show the inadequacy of current port infrastructure and supporting safety and security, and, taking a long run view, discuss how current investment decisions can either exacerbate problems of development of the periphery or can alleviate growing tensions for communities in flux.

Russia is promoting the NSR and is looking to have it “open for business” all year round by deploying a fleet of nuclear ice-breakers. The Danish A.P. Moller-Maersk managed to successfully complete a test voyage last September; despite previously denying any commercial interest in the NSR, the company has recently announced that it is exploring a partnership with the Russian Atomflot.

It remains to be seen whether CMA CGM will lead to other shipping majors to follow suit, and to whether the CMA CGM’s own commitment will last longer than Macron’s political mandate.