Year-round Arctic voyages spark alarm 

NGOs have hit out at news this week that Russia will begin year-round voyages from the Arctic to Asia along the eastern section of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) from 2024, an opening of a tradelane with huge implications for the global seaborne map.

Clean Arctic Alliance lead advisor Dr Sian Prior said: “If year-round transiting through the Northern Sea Route appears an attractive proposition due to loss of Arctic Sea ice caused by climate warming, then think again – burning yet more fossil fuels in the region will exacerbate climate impacts.” 

Greenhouse gas and black carbon emissions from ships operating in the Arctic contribute to the warming of the Arctic – currently four times faster than elsewhere on Earth – and as the Arctic warms, Prior said this will have significant repercussions further south. Furthermore, increased shipping through poorly charted waters is a “recipe for an environmental disaster” such as an oil spill, Prior added.

A host of NGOs have been leading campaigns at the International Maritime Organization for years to try and cut shipping’s carbon footprint in transiting the Arctic.

With Europe and much of the west cutting economic and diplomatic ties in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been putting much emphasis on creating new links to clients in Asia. 

To this end, Russia has been operating more icebreakers along its Arctic coast this year than at any time in the country’s three-decade, post-Soviet history, while roughly half of the country’s dredging operations this year are taking place in this delicate environment.

Putin has set big targets to triple the volumes of freight moved along by the NSR by 2030, and has been pitching the route to the likes of China and India as a Suez alternative.

During a three-day state visit to Moscow in March, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Putin agreed to closer cooperation in the Arctic energy and transportation sectors. According to statements made by Putin, the two countries are seeking to establish a joint umbrella organisation for traffic on the NSR. 

Meanwhile, India and Russia have been discussing the possibility of launching a trans-Arctic container shipping line and processing facilities along the NSR. 

With Putin shunned in the west, the president has been looking at many alternative routes to move freight, not just up north. 

For instance, Moscow has accelerated plans for the long-cherished International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC). 

The INSTC, a project originally launched by Russia, Iran and India in 2002, is a 7,200 km-long multi-mode network of ship, rail, and road to move freight between India, Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia and Europe. The objective of the corridor is to increase trade connectivity between major cities such as Mumbai, Moscow, Tehran, Baku, Bandar Abbas and Astrakhan. Russia claims the project could ultimately rival the Suez Canal in terms of trade flows. 

This month, Putin and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi signed a deal to finance and build the 162 km Rasht-Astara Iranian railway, a key link in the emerging freight corridor. 

The railway along the Caspian Sea coast will help connect Russian ports on the Baltic Sea with Iranian ports in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf.

The two leaders have also discussed building ships in Iran which will be dedicated for the Caspian as part of the corridor, with Putin also saying he would be keen to invest in Iranian ports.

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