IMO completes Polar Code environmental rules

The new shipping rules will apply to both the Arctic and Antarctic after January 1, 2017. (Jimmy Thomson/Barents Observer)
The new shipping rules will apply to both the Arctic and Antarctic after January 1, 2017. (Jimmy Thomson/Barents Observer)
The UN International Maritime Organization has drafted the environmental regulations chapter for the Polar Code, a binding set of regulations for shipping in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Critics argue that some important environmental pieces are missing.

The International Maritime Organization has completed the last element of the first-ever binding set of international rules for the Arctic shipping.

Last week in London, the United Nations organization approved the environmental rules that make up the second half of the Polar Code, which is expected to come into force at the start of 2017. The regulations for safety, the first chapter of the Code, were approved last spring.

Despite protests from Russia, the new environmental measures ban both garbage dumping and oily discharges from ships in polar waters. Russia had sought an exemption for oily discharges for some of its ships on domestic routes in the Arctic, specifically ships operating in ice that would remain at sea for extended periods.

Deputy Minister of Transportation Victor Olersky came out swinging against the regulations prior to the meeting last week, urging the IMO to not introduce “rigid, prohibitive measures that will prevent shipping companies from using the Northern route.”

The Northern Sea Route

Russia is steeply ramping up the use of the Northern Sea Route. The first commercial ships made the transit in 1997; by 2011, just four ships completed the passage. In 2012 and 2013, though, traffic exploded with 46 and 71 commercial ships arcing over Russia between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean.

Paul Crowley, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Canadian Arctic Program, celebrated the new code while criticizing some of missing pieces. Among other things, Crowley laments its lack of an Antarctic-style ban on heavy fuel oils, which release more unhealthy air emissions and present an added danger in spill situations.

“Many of the environmental provisions need to be strengthened before the Polar Code is finalized,” he wrote in an op-ed for Nunatsiaq News.

Ship noise, which disturbs wildlife, has not yet been addressed either by the draft regulations, although starting in 2017 ships will be required to plan their routes accounting for marine mammal habitat.

Emissions of black carbon, one of the most harmful known air pollutants, were not yet addressed, although they may be before the Polar Code is finalized.

One major element of the environmental regulations is a requirement for ships operating in polar waters to be 30 percent more energy efficient by 2025 than ships built before 2013.

Before the Polar Code comes into effect it must be adopted at the next meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee and the Maritime Safety Committee next spring.

Related stories from around the North:

Asia:  Full steam ahead for Asian icebreakers in the Arctic this summer, Blog by Mia Bennett

Canada: Canada’s Arctic patrol ships – A $250M mystery, CBC News

Finland: New Finland icebreaker can operate sideways with asymmetrical hull, Yle News

Russia: Northern Sea Route – Open for business?, Blog by Mia Bennett

Sweden: Swedish icebreakers gear up for Arctic role, Radio Sweden

United States: Hearing on U.S. Policy in the Arctic – ‘Let Russia do it for us…’?, Eye on the Arctic

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