By K. Joseph Spears

The words “climate change” are not used often by the federal government in connection with the Arctic, either domestically or while participating in the Arctic Council or other international forums. Canada has chaired the Arctic Council for the last two years and has been largely silent on this issue, which is arguably the underlying driver behind the loss of Arctic sea ice. This is in direct contrast to the United States which has made dealing with climate change and the Arctic one of its main priorities when it takes over the Chair of the Arctic Council later in May in a ministerial meeting in Iqaluit, Nunavik. The United States uses climate change as a lens to look at Arctic issues. It is a core component of U.S. Arctic policy along with strengthening Arctic Ocean stewardship in improving economic and living conditions in the region. The U.S. is not alone in this approach. For example, China has undertaken a vigorous scientific research program that is being driven by trying to understand climate change in the Arctic. It has under construction a new research icebreaker expected to be launched later this year.

Countries assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council for a two year period. The United States has laid out a clear roadmap of where it wants to go from a policy perspective. It is very clear that climactic conditions are rapidly changing in the Arctic, which impacts a broad range of issues locally, regionally and globally. Secretary of State John Kerry will assume the Chair of the Arctic Council on behalf of the United States.

The Arctic Council is an international organization made up of all the Arctic nations, six international organizations representing Arctic Indigenous Peoples with permanent participant status, and includes a number of nations including China, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Italy as permanent observers. The desire of these nations to seek observer status shows the global importance of the Council.

The Arctic Council serves as a high-level forum to deal with a broad range of Arctic issues and has a variety of working groups that deal with various broad issues including shipping and the Arctic environment. The Arctic Council has six main areas of interest:

• Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP)

• Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP)

• Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF)

• Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR)

• Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME)

• Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG)

Increased commercial shipping in the Arctic is a concern for the Arctic Council, but the Council does not have any formal international legal status over the governance of Arctic shipping which is within the purview of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). There is overlap with respect to shipping governance and operation which is within the ambit of the IMO as it has an impact on the Arctic. Ultimately it is the coastal states that govern shipping activity in the Arctic under article 234 of the Law of the Sea Convention – the ice covered water provision. The goal internationally has been to create one uniform standard in the Arctic. For example, ship-source black carbon from ship exhaust emissions is being looked at by the Arctic Council. There is a positive feedback loop that black particulate (from increased shipping as a result of diminishing sea ice) will melt sea ice quicker on Arctic shipping routes. One study recent estimated that black soot emissions could increase 150 to 600 per cent by 2025. Black soot has a much larger environmental impact in the Arctic region than elsewhere globally.

IMO has adopted the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code), and related amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) to make it mandatory. The Polar Code covers the full range of design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue and environmental protection matters relevant to ships operating in waters surrounding the Arctic and Antarctic. It is at best a minimum risk management standard. With any international agreement, consensus needs to be reached, and shipping is no different. In many respects, the Polar Code contains arguably less stringent standards than the standards comprising Canada’s current Arctic shipping regulatory regime. It remains to be seen how this will work in practice in the coming years as commercial marine activity increases.

While the price of oil might impact offshore hydrocarbon development in the Arctic, it remains to be seen how this will impact international commercial shipping. Global trade carried by sea has increased 30 per cent in recent years. This could lead to greater interest in commercial shipping activities in the Arctic, especially as the sea ice diminishes.

The U.S. Navy has recently released a study undertaken by the Office of Naval research (ONR), which predicts that the Arctic could be ice free by the end of the century. Scientists presented initial findings from ONR’s Marginal Ice Zone (MIZ) experiment that took place last year in the Arctic Ocean – the largest research effort to date using robotic technologies to investigate ice conditions where the frozen ocean meets the open ocean. “There’s no question that the Arctic sea ice extent is decreasing,” said Dr. Martin Jeffries, Program Officer for the ONR Arctic and Global Prediction Program. “Multiple sources of data – autonomous underwater gliders, ice-measuring buoys and satellite images of the Marginal Ice Zone – were used to help understand why the ice is retreating.”

In the period between 2007 and 2014, satellites recorded the eight lowest sea ice levels ever. One of the key goals of the MIZ program, which runs through 2017, is to use new data to make better predictive computer models, ensuring safer operations for not only naval vessels, but also anticipated increased sea traffic by shipping and fishing industries; oil, gas and mining companies; and tourism operations.

On January 15, 2015, President Obama released his Executive Order on enhancing coordination of national efforts in the Arctic: “As the United States assumes chairmanship of the Arctic Council, it is more important than ever that we have a coordinated national effort that takes advantage of our combined expertise and efforts in the Arctic region to promote our shared values and priorities”.

The United States Secretary of State appointed the former Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, Admiral Robert Papp, to be U.S. Special Representative on the Arctic, which is a clear recognition of the importance of shipping regulation to the region and likely one of the most immediate challenges in the future. The United States is also taking steps to develop shipping lanes through the Bering Sea, a major chokepoint for entering the Western Arctic. Traffic there has doubled in the last seven years with over 400 international transits. The Bering Strait will likely grow in importance as various resource projects develop even if in transit international shipping does not grow. The recent voyage of MV Fednav Nunavik without icebreaker assistance through the Northwest Passage proves that Arctic shipping is feasible.

During its chairmanship of the Arctic Council, Canada sought to promote economic development without any consideration of the underlying causes of sea ice changes. Compared to what the United States is proposing, Canada did little to promote international action on a variety of the issues facing the Arctic. For a domestic audience, the Arctic was the subject of promises and photo opportunities, but at the international level, little was accomplished or championed by Canada, and arguably alienated Russia (see below). Canada leaves behind little in the way of a tangible legacy from its chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

If 2013 was a year of expanded Arctic cooperation noted by the acceptance of the five Asian states as observers to the Arctic Council, 2014 was the year of strained Arctic cooperation. Canada boycotted one meeting in Russia – a meeting of the Task Force on black carbon and methane which Canada chairs. This was the first time an Arctic Council member state boycotted a meeting.

In Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy document of 2010, Canada identified the United States as its premier partner in the Arctic to foster stronger bilateral “strategic engagement Arctic issues”. It remains to be seen whether Canada will follow the approach taken by the United States where action on climate change is the underlying policy direction.

The challenge the United States will have during its tenure as Chair of the Arctic Council is ensuring that a multilateral approach is taken to global Arctic issues. Given the high level direction from the President, the United States takes very seriously the challenges being brought by climate change to the Arctic. The Executive Order is the latest signal from the White House that the present administration is focused on preparing the nation for major change in the Arctic and protecting U.S. national interests. In other words, it is a priority for the Obama administration. These concerns will likely override issues involving Russia in the region given the importance to the global Arctic, especially with outside observers like China being part of the Arctic Council. It is possible to park defence and security issues, which the Arctic Council specifically does not get involved with. In the next Arctic chapter, innovation and cooperation on governance must come, as that is the only way, given the time and distances involved to operate in the Arctic.

One thing is certain: loss of sea ice will drive economic factors, and Arctic coastal nations need to be ready for the governance of commercial shipping. This will require infrastructure and investment of scarce national financial resources. No amount of coordination or policy will remedy the fact that coastal states and their governmental agencies must make available the necessary resources to respond to the changes posed by a melting Arctic, which will result in growing commercial activity in the region. Talk is one thing, action is another in an increasingly global Arctic, The New Ocean.

K. Joseph Spears of Horseshoe Bay Marine Group has a 35 year interest in Arctic shipping governance. Through Dalhousie University, he assisted the development of the Canadian position on Arctic Shipping for the Arctic Council.