Climate Change and Arctic Shipping
Climate change is impacting the the Arctic. Despite adverse consequences, it's unlikely that global response will prevent significant damage to the region's environment. As it becomes accessible to commercial shipping, there is an opportunity for shorter, efficient and more secure sea routes among European, North American and Asian states. However, this can only occur if the High North is managed carefully. To accomplish this, the US and EU need to play a constructive role in the Arctic.
It is clear that the Arctic ice cap has retreated dramatically in the last half century and is projected to shrink further in the coming decades. Two Arctic shipping routes have recently been navigated in the summer months and may become viable over the next thirty years. The Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route link the Bering Strait with the North Atlantic along the northern coastlines of Canada and Russia, respectively. Interest in these routes has grown as they by-pass politically volatile waters and could significantly cut fuel costs through shorter journeys – as much as 40% – for ships currently transiting via the Suez and Panama canals.
Even as some waters become ice-free in summer, the region has a number of challenges including a lack of infrastructure and unique environmental hazards. These need to be addressed at a political level for total shipping costs to become competitive. Important technical and logistical cooperation among Arctic states is needed, which is an area where the U.S. can play a proactive role. Another set of issues stems from the internationalization of the Arctic and the use of its waters by actors outside the region. It is in this context that Brussels can also contribute. It can do this in conjunction with the U.S. where other Arctic states are concerned, as well as with its own member states.
The Roles of Washington and Brussels
The US and the EU differ in their capacities to shape the future of Arctic shipping. Unlike the EU, the US is a member of the Arctic Council and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) which have a crucial function in determining how Arctic shipping will proceed. Washington can therefore play a direct role in shaping international and regional approaches through these organizations. In the IMO, the US should continue to support the development of the Polar Code which aims to set shipping standards for the often hazardous Arctic environment.
With fewer members, the US has an even greater capacity to tackle the more fundamental challenges facing the region through the Arctic Council. Arctic governance has been driven by a functional need to address problems that Arctic states cannot efficiently or adequately combat individually. So far, this has resulted in agreements on responses to marine oil pollution and search and rescue incidents. These aim to pool capabilities and make them available to Arctic states across their national borders.
As maritime activity increases, the US will need to push for cooperation in other areas. To an extent, this is already occurring with coastal Arctic states in negotiations on commercial fishing. However, policing, security and the development of maritime infrastructure require additional degrees of international cooperation. Washington's Arctic strategy states that regional arrangements could have a role in achieving its economic and security interests. With the U.S. chairing the Arctic Council from 2015-17, it will soon have an opportunity to set the agenda so that regional governance can begin to address the full range of challenges facing shipping in the region.
While the EU does not enjoy the same institutional position, there are ways that it can work with Washington in the High North. One of these should be clarifying the status of Arctic waterways, in particular the Northwest Passage. Canada maintains that much of the Northwest Passage is part of its internal waters, a status that gives it considerable freedom to regulate traffic. On the other hand, both the U.S. and the EU maintain that it is an international strait which prevents Canada from closing it to shipping.
Ottawa's long-held position is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. A more realistic goal is an agreement which would guarantee access for certain shipping activities without parties having to change their stances on the issue. The US and Canada already have an existing understanding which focuses on practical access without addressing issues of sovereignty. Having the EU on board a broader access regime would be especially useful given the presence that Europe has in the global shipping industry. Common ground should be possible since maritime states and commercial operators need certainty. At the same time, Canada is looking for ways to protect its sovereignty from challenges and will be directly competing for shipping traffic with Russia's Northern Sea Route.
By becoming an observer of the Arctic Council or a member of the IMO, the EU could have a broader influence on Arctic politics. For the time being, its most important role lies in areas where it shares competences with its member states. Specifically, EU transport and environmental policies – two areas which directly impact shipping – will have to be closely matched with national and international obligations so that compliance can be achieved without unnecessary costs.
At this stage, the EU's focus does not have to be on drafting specific legislation. Rather, it needs to work with member states to decide how much responsibility Brussels will take for regulating European ships using the Arctic. While Brussels supports the IMO's Polar Code and potentially other instruments being considered in the Arctic Council, it is not yet clear how these will be incorporated into EU law. The EU will need to decide which aspects will be left to member states and which will be enacted at a European level. Some flexibility will be needed but establishing frameworks now will set expectations and mean that future international arrangements can be applied across the EU without delays, inconsistencies and uneven application.
Preparing for the Future
The Arctic is no longer an isolated region. Climate change is creating the prospect of large-scale commercial shipping. Arctic actors will need to take steps so that this can be economically and politically feasible. The US and the EU can guide this process through different, but complementary, roles. Both actors should work together on some issues while playing to their strengths. Washington can have the greatest impact in shaping regional governance while the EU can have an important role in the internationalization of Arctic shipping. Results may take time but the ultimate objective should be a secure, low-cost and sustainable environment for maritime traffic in the High North.
Edward Mortimer is a graduate of the Australian National University with an interest in multilateral governance.