5: Ship traffic and shipping routes
Less ice in the Arctic Ocean could lead to more ship traffic in the new shipping lanes between Asia and Europe, but the forecasts for how many boats will sail in the north are still uncertain. The number of sailing days between Shanghai and Rotterdam can be reduced from 30 to about 14 days, and the distance is 5,000 kilometers shorter compared to the route in the south via the Suez Canal. Although this seems attractive in theory, there has so far been no strong growth in transcontinental shipping via the Arctic.
In 2013, only 71 commercial ships sailed across the Arctic Ocean on their way between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Most of the shipping traffic in the north takes place locally in the region, and 80 per cent of the cruises are in Norwegian sea areas. The pattern and volume of shipping traffic can change in the long term, and several states, organizations and companies are following developments closely.
6: New agreements
The Arctic Council was previously a forum only for dialogue between states and organizations, but that has changed. An expectation of increased activity in the Arctic is the background for new regional agreements.
According to CLOTHINGEXPRESS.ORG, the first important regional agreement was signed outside the Arctic Council; it was important for regulating sovereignty, rights and authority. In 2008, the five Arctic coastal states of Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States signed the so-called Ilulissater Declaration that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea will form the basis for regulating sovereignty and rights in the Arctic. Most of the marine resources there are found in territorial waters and economic zones where coastal states have sovereignty. Few resources in the Arctic are found in international waters. The law of the sea provides relatively free opportunities for shipping in Arctic sea areas also for other than Arctic states.
In 2011, the Arctic Council adopted an agreement on search and rescue in the High North. The agreement is the council’s first binding agreement. Previously, there were only local agreements in the Arctic. In 1995, Russia and Norway signed a co-operation agreement on search and rescue in the north. Within the Barents Cooperation , a contingency agreement was entered into in 2008 between Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. The agreement in the Arctic Council is therefore important because it is the first comprehensive agreement for the entire Arctic.
In 2013, the member countries of the Arctic Council signed an agreement on oil spill preparedness against accidents and pollution. Russia, the United States and Norway have played a leading role in developing solutions for preparedness against offshore oil pollution in the Arctic. The United States in particular has learned how serious pollution from shipping accidents can be for the ecological system in the Arctic (cf. the oil tanker Exxon Valdez, which sank in 1989). Increased human activity and interest in the High North make it imperative to put in place such contingency schemes, but the most important thing in the agreement is schemes to prevent and deter accidents.
7: Growing international interest
According to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there has long been little international attention to the Arctic Council. That picture has changed dramatically in recent years. The increased international interest is related to the fact that commercial activities in the High North may increase in the long term as a result of climate change. In addition, the Arctic Council itself has changed its character over the past decade.
Germany, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Poland have in recent years been regular observers in the Arctic Council. In addition, 20 different organizations have also applied for and been granted permanent observer status in the council. Several observer countries and organizations have actively contributed and been important to the work of the permanent working groups under the Arctic Council.
At the Council of Ministers’ meeting in Sweden in 2013, several countries and organizations had applied to become permanent observers. The applications from the Asian countries, especially China, received a lot of attention before and after the meeting in Kiruna. China, Japan and South Korea had applied several times since 2009, while India and Singapore were first-time applicants in 2013. Italy was the only European country to apply this time. In addition, eight organizations applied for observer status – the European Commission, business representatives, environmental protection interests and scientific organizations.
Italy and all the Asian candidate countries were approved as permanent observers to the Arctic Council in 2013. The European Commission’s application was the most difficult. The EU has previously introduced a ban on imports of seal products; it has affected Canada and the economy of their indigenous people. The EU must therefore clarify its relationship with Canada before they can become a permanent observer to the Arctic Council.
The Asian countries in particular gave great political prestige in their applications to become permanent observers in the Arctic Council. If the applications had not been accepted, it could have received a lot of media attention and political consequences for the Arctic states. A negative response could have been perceived as Western protectionism. But why will countries in Asia become observers in the Arctic Council, and what interests do they have in the region?