In late March, the large shipping cargo boat, Ever Given, became stuck in the Suez Canal. The boat itself weighed 200,000 tonnes and was carrying 18,300 containers. The ship remained stuck for six days, delaying billions in shipping costs and creating shortages. Constructions for the Suez Canal began in 1859, and after completion in 1869, it became a significant trade route the world still relies on today.
According to the BBC, the canal sees about 12% of the global trade, one million barrels of oil, and roughly 8% of liquified natural gas daily. When the blockage occurred, other countries became concerned and thought of other trade route options. One country, in particular, to bring a solution to the table was Russia, which has been an advocate for the Northern Sea Trade Route. As temperatures have risen in the Arctic, the melting ice has increased the ability of Russia (and other countries) to explore the area and entertain the idea of an Arctic trade route. The exploration, melting ice, and blockage in the Suez Canal has made Russian President Vladamir Putin’s trade route proposal more viable. In December 2020, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev published a detailed plan regarding creating infrastructure along the Northern Sea trade route. Infrastructure is necessary as Putin has wanted cargo volume to increase to 80 million tonnes by 2024 and 90 million tonnes by 2030. However, with the Arctic already facing rising temperatures and shrinking ice caps, the addition of infrastructure and a trade route would create even more damaging effects to the area and increase destruction.
Currently, the world uses seven major trade routes that see anywhere from 130 ships daily to over 48,000 in a year. With each trade route, environmental issues are heightened. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report detailing the various environmental impacts shipping methods have on the environment.
The first significant impact is plastics. To keep freight from moving, ships use a material called dunnage. Unfortunately, this material is accumulated and sometimes discharged into the water when no longer needed or by large movements. The dunnage is made out of wood or plastic, which creates harm to the animals by causing choking, reduce the nutritional value of food and wash up on beaches. Though the dumping of such plastics is illegal, it proves to be challenging to prevent.
Another risk includes spills from cargo or oil. Cargo can include a variety of non-biodegradable contents as well as oil. Regarding oil spills, though the trend of spills has continued to decrease, about 1,000 tonnes of oil spilled into the oceans in 2020, according to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation. Each spill harms the environment, destroys natural processes and the local habitats; as ecosystems are circular, hurting just one aspect of it will significantly affect another.
Shipping imposes other environmental risks, including air pollution. Today, most ships are more efficient at using oil and combustible engines that emit air pollutants. In a report by the International Maritime Organization found that in 2012 alone worldwide shipping used 300 million tonnes of fuel oil, resulting in 949 million tonnes of Carbon Dioxide released into the air. This information can be used to understand the 3.1% of CO2 and 2.8% of greenhouse gas emissions (from 2007-2012) can be linked to shipping.
The fourth area of pollution comes from the creation of ports. To create a port, dredging has to be involved. This includes digging deep into the coast, removing and adding organic material that greatly affects the natural flow and increases erosion of coastlines. When new soil is added or taken away, it affects the light that organisms receive and destroys their habitats. Their habitats are affected by the amount of sunlight that is now lost or added, change in oxygen levels, and even disrupts the wave patterns. Further, the dredged soil is contaminated with oil, heavy metals, and nutrients new to the habitats.
Finally, while ships are travelling, the ships take in and let out water known as ballast water. This water contains sediments, oils, and sometimes even aquatic life. The addition of sediments and oils can create damage to local environments, but aquatic life being transported can have a larger impact. New “exotic” animals that are added to environments do not typically survive, but some like the Zebra Mussel survive. The organism infiltrated the Great Lakes and caused infrastructure problems. The environmental issues that are outlined above are just from the shipping we face today, and it can easily be concluded that shipping causes great environmental harm.
With the current environmental crisis, each day, we approach an irreversible damaging point. Shipping and the environmental problems from it are one way we continue to come closer and closer to an irreversible point. We already notice a difference in our world, harder and more frequent hurricanes, wildfires, and fluctuating and rising temperatures worldwide. The Arctic has been a prime example of this as temperatures have continued to rise and melt the ice. Many see this as a problem, but Russian President Vladamir Putin sees this as a chance for economic gain. He plans to exploit the melting ice from rising temperatures to have more access to the Arctic for infrastructure and trade. This is a greedy move that will cause more harm than good to the Arctic.
First, building infrastructure such as airports and ports will be physically damaging to the Arctic. With dredging, soil for regular ports becomes contaminated, and a similar situation could happen within the Arctic. Bringing heavy machinery to break apart the ice and push it into the water while it is contaminated with dirt and oil will pollute and harm the ecosystem that exists. With having not fully discovered the Arctic, humans may not even know what life they are damaging. The ecosystem within the Arctic is already fragile, and the building of ports and infrastructure could cause irreversible damage.
Another impact of the Northern Sea Trade Route is the risks that additional ships add to the Arctic. President Putin wants to increase trade to 80 million tonnes by 2024 or 90 million tonnes by 2030; the Northern Sea Trade Route only saw 31 million tonnes in 2019. The addition of 50 million tonnes leads to a higher chance of oil spills, contamination, additional pollution to air and water, and the possible introduction of exotic animals. The more ships that travel along the route, the higher the chance of one of the impacts occurring. Russia would control the water that ships would be sailing through. Given the current stance Russia is taking on exploiting climate change for economic greed, it could be assumed that Russia would not regulate environmental concerns heavily which would continue to increase the risk the Arctic faces.
Finally, if the Northern Sea Trade Route was to be implemented by Russia, this would cause a drastic shift in economic world power. First, Russia expanding its power beyond its coastline opens up the chance of discovery of oil. It is estimated that there is $35 trillion of untapped oil, gas, and mineral resources. This possibility will give Russia a chance to monopolize and be in control of a necessity for the world. Further, with a larger presence in the Arctic, Russia has expanded its military presence which have put other countries on edge. The debate and arguments regarding ownership of the Arctic are still occurring and this move only increases the tension. Tensions can further increase, knowing that China has a stake in the expansion project. Both countries working on the Northern Trade Route would continue to expand geopolitical ties, and even the idea of the deal raised concern in the US. In May 2019, the Pentagon released a report raising concerns for increased military activity in the Arctic due to the increase in Chinese activity. The control and power that come with the new trade route can continue to increase international tensions and the opportunity for massive economic gains for an unpredictable country.
Adding a Northern Trade route would harm the Arctic. Through the creation of ports and infrastructure, the destruction of ecosystems would be unimaginable. The heavier traffic that comes with more shipping other pollutants and risks such as oil spills, emission, and ballistic water increases. Further, given Russia’s lack of care for the environment, it can be assumed that there would be very few regulations protecting the environment, leading to worsening situations in the Arctic. Finally, if the trade route was to be used, Russia could increase its boundaries, allowing for control of many natural resources. This allows the chance for Russia to control and monopolize necessities. China also has a stake in this expansion. With the two countries working together, it can continue to raise tensions and concerns from others. Given these reasons, it is better than the world continues to use the shipping routes that are currently in use.