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The Northern Sea Route Will Shorten Trade Journeys – and Augur Climate Disaster

The Northern Sea Route Will Shorten Trade Journeys – and Augur Climate Disaster

Representative photo: Hubert Neufeld/Unsplash

The Suez Canal was recently blocked by the ship Ever Given, bringing international trade along this major shipping route to a standstill and exposing the vulnerabilities of global supply chains. Allianz, which had insured the Ever Given, indicated that the six-day obstruction had cost global trade $6-10 billion. Roughly 12% of the world’s trade, and a million barrels of oil, pass through the canal every day.

So as efforts to dislodge the 200,000-tonne ship were underway, Russia saw an opportunity to promote the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as an alternative.

An illustration of the Northern Sea Route. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Running from the Barents Sea near the Russia-Norway border all the way to the Bering strait between Siberia and Alaska, the NSR could become an essential route for the extraction and transportation of resources, including hydrocarbons, from the Arctic. Going from South Korea to England, the NSR is shorter by around 4,000 nautical miles1 compared to the Suez route, and could also give Russia’s oil and gas industry a big boost.

In October 2020, Russian president Vladimir Putin released a strategy document for the development of the Russian Arctic Zone. It includes a plan to open up the NSR, construct air and shipping ports, and build a fleet of nuclear-powered ice-breaking ships. But while many senior Russian officials have touted the NSR as a shorter and safer alternative, they tend to hide the adverse climate risks involved.

Also read: Ever Given: The Physics of Big Ships Clogging the Suez Canal

Allowing commercial shipping through the Arctic will be nothing short of a climate disaster. Increased shipping means increased risk of oil spills, air pollution from fuel combustion, and accidents. Heavy fuel oil (HFO) is the most common shipping fuel in the Arctic, and its use produces black carbon – or soot – that can accelerate the rate at which Arctic ice is melting. Black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping alone grew by 85% from 2015 to 2019.

As global concerns about HFOs and their associated emissions of black carbon have grown, the UN International Maritime Organisation announced a ‘paper ban’ on the use of HFOs in November 2020. However, the ban comes into effect only in July 2024 – and also allows exemptions and waivers for certain types of ships until 2029. Perhaps worst of all, HFO cargo will be allowed in the Arctic region indefinitely.

Image: International Council on Clean Transport, CC BY-NC-ND

Arctic ice [reflects incoming solar radiation back into space. However, when black carbon enters and is suspended in the lower atmosphere, it absorbs heat, and when it floats down onto the snow, it reduces the reflectivity. The snow then absorbs the heat it might have reflected, and melts faster.

Also read: Soot From India Makes Its Way To the Arctic, Speeds Up Ice Melt

In the absence of this ‘white shield’, Earth’s surface will thus warm up faster. A study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in 2019 reported that black carbon-motivated loss of reflectivity could advance global warming by 25 years, causing catastrophic and irreversible damage.

Over the last few decades, the Arctic atmosphere has warmed thrice as much as the global average, resulting in significant reduction in the extent of the Arctic ice. As the permafrost in particular thaws, it releases trapped carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases that cause more warming (methane is more than 80-times more potent over 20 years). All the permafrost together store around 1,700 billion tonnes of carbon.

Of the 15 million sq. km or so of permafrost, 3.4 million has already thawed.

It may have been tempting to consider the NSR when the Suez Canal was blocked. However, the impact on the climate should dissuade every policymaker from making the switch. Protecting the Arctic requires immediate global action to cut carbon dioxide but also emissions of short-lived climate pollutants such as methane and black carbon. If we don’t take these steps now, or worse, promote shipping through the NSR, we will lose all our remaining chances to shield against the worst of climate change.

Zerin Osho is an international climate law and policy professional. She holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School and is currently on assignment at the International Solar Alliance. The views here are the author’s own.


  1. 7,408 km

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