Climate & Energy Blog

IMO’s ‘Polar Code’ ignores environmental dangers of increased Arctic and Antarctic shipping

Posted Jan. 27, 2014 / Posted by: Kate Colwell

Washington, D.C. – Last week a sub-committee of the International Maritime Organization reached a preliminary agreement, known as the “Polar Code,” on mandatory environmental and safety measures governing shipping operations in Arctic and Antarctic waters. Unfortunately, the Polar Code neglects to address the looming danger of allowing non ice-strengthened and poorly prepared ships to operate in supposedly “ice-free” polar waters. Increased shipping activity in the Arctic and Antarctic poses significant new dangers to the polar environment, such as oil spills, black carbon emissions, untreated wastewater discharges, and the introduction of invasive species through ballast water and hull fouling.

The IMO’s final draft of the Polar Code sets rules for ocean-going vessels, including oil tankers, container ships and cruise ships whose crews are unaccustomed to voyaging in polar waters. But the draft makes the dangerous assumption that ships without special hull protection can operate unhindered by ice.

The carriage and use of “residual” heavy fuel oil -- which contains, on average, 2,700 times more sulfur than fuel used in cars and trucks -- is banned in Antarctic waters. The IMO, however, did not seriously consider the devastating ecological effects of an oil spill in the Arctic. The IMO also failed to address black carbon, now widely recognized as the second most important driver of climate change after carbon dioxide, and ballast water discharge.

John Kaltenstein, Marine program manager at Friends of the Earth U.S., who attended the meeting, stated:

“The environmental provisions of the proposed Polar Code are paltry at best. After four years of negotiations at the IMO, the shipping and cruise industry has displayed a remarkable ability to defeat or impair nearly all of the Polar Code’s environmental measures, no matter how minor, while at the same time trumpeting the uniqueness and values of the Polar Regions. These areas are under threat from rapidly expanding polar shipping, but the environmental safeguards that one would expect in the final draft of the Polar Code are nowhere to be found.”

In 2013, the number of voyages on the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic increased by more than 54 percent compared to 2012 vessel traffic levels. Navigation in polar waters remains dangerous and highly unpredictable for even the best equipped ships -- as the recent incidents involving the tanker Nordvik on the Northern Sea Route and the Akademik Shokalskiy in East Antarctica dramatically demonstrate.

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Contact:
John Kaltenstein, (510) 900- 3142, jkaltenstein@foe.org
Adam Russell, (202) 222- 0722, arussell@foe.org

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