The UK needs to be proactive on the Northern Sea Route

28 November 2019

Even as delegates prepare for the COP25 talks that will launch in Madrid next week, climate change is already dramatically reshaping our world. For the global maritime and logistical industries, one of the most important impacts of rising global temperatures may be the opening of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which runs along Russia’s Arctic coast and is set to become navigable year-round, revolutionizing global shipping.

At the same time, as Brexit poses new challenges for the British economy, the UK must find innovative solutions to ensure our island nation survives and prospers. These solutions may well be waiting for us in the NSR’s previously treacherous waters, with important developments taking place in the Arctic seas. Indeed, to preserve the UK’s status as a key maritime trading hub, Britain’s leaders must keep a close eye on the steady progress being made in opening the NSR.

Historic changes

Why are the climatic changes happening north of Russia so important to the UK? First and foremost, this is because the NSR represents an opportunity for the UK to establish itself as a crucial link between Europe and Asia. The UK is perfectly placed to take advantage of this trade route; not only are we already a well-established center for maritime trade, but we have generations of experience in sailing these very same Arctic waters. During the Second World War, Arctic convoys delivered 4 million tonnes of supplies to Russia during the Nazi invasion.

Historically, the route has only been operational from July to October, and has required the accompaniment of icebreakers and ice class vessels. Now, from the very same port of Murmansk where those supplies were delivered, Russia recently sailed the world’s first floating nuclear power plant across the Arctic seas to its final destination in Russia’s Far North.

Both Russia and neighboring China are already investing billions in the route’s development, and recent advances in small nuclear reactor technologies in particular appear to be a game changer. The Russian nuclear energy company Rosatom says its nuclear-fueled icebreaker fleet has already escorted over 7 million tonnes of cargo through the NSR, and 80 million tonnes are projected to be transported by 2024.

The combination of a warming climate and advances in nuclear icebreaker technology mean large scale trade and shipping along the NSR will rapidly become a reality. Importantly, the opening of new shipping routes through the Arctic Ocean will make critical contributions to reducing the overall carbon footprint of the global shipping industry.

Cutting shipping times and emissions

The “Polar Silk Road” promises to halve transit times and cut fuel and shipping costs by 40 percent, a groundbreaking shift that will also halve CO2 emissions from the ships taking the new route. Given that the shipping sector on its own is responsible for more carbon emissions than the aviation industry – 2.5% of overall greenhouse gas emissions, or 940 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – a new shipping route that promises to shave days off the time a container ship spends at sea, and the amount of fuel it needs to reach its destination, will have a noticeable impact on emissions reductions efforts.

The rapid changes happening in the Arctic Ocean may soon create an alternative route to the Suez Canal, offering economic benefits as well as environmental ones. While shipping through the NSR may still be small beer compared with the one billion tonnes which pass through Suez each year, shorter transit times, the absence of queues, and lower risks from piracy will create attractive opportunities for shipping coming to or from Asia. Given that almost one third of the world’s container traffic is represented by trade between Europe and East Asia, the UK can reap important economic benefits from this new route.

To take just one example of the UK’s readiness to navigate these ever less troubled waters, the £200 million Arctic research ship RRS Sir David Attenborough, launched last year at Birkenhead, is one of the most advanced polar vessels in the world. The cutting-edge research ship, which represents the British government’s largest financial commitment to polar science in three decades, was built by Cammell Laird. Designed by Rolls Royce, the project secured 400 jobs and 60 apprenticeships; once in operation, 30 crew and sixty scientists and support staff will be employed at any one time.

Building on strong foundations

Over 90 percent of the UK’s international trade passes through its seaports. A significant part of that trade is with Arctic Council Member States, four of whom – the US, Russia, Canada and Sweden – are among our top 20 trading partners. Brexit requires a reappraisal of Britain’s global trade, and particularly its trade relationships outside of the EU. At the same time, the House of Lords has already found that northern and eastern UK ports are well placed to benefit from the opening of the NSR.

The UK ports industry is the biggest in Europe, giving us strong foundations on which to base further investment into the opportunities offered by the Arctic sea project. However, the UK needs to act quickly to secure its place, both financially and diplomatically, in the future of maritime trading. Northern European countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium are increasingly involved in projects which require Arctic shipping, which means the NSR will rapidly become a competitive market.

Three quarters of a century ago, the ingenuity and courage of the Arctic Convoys achieved a wartime diplomatic and military coup. Those same qualities can once again keep the UK in the forefront of maritime trading trends, ensuring our position as a key bridge between west and east.

Image credit: Jamie Womble/NPS

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