Swiss shipping line MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company says it is redoubling its commitment to avoid shipping through the Arctic, as some debate the need for alternative trade routes to the Suez Canal following the grounding of the Ever Given.
The company’s CEO, Diego Aponte, first pledged in 2019 not to use the Northern Sea Route for shipping between Asia and Europe for environmental reasons, joining rivals CMA CGM, Hapag-Lloyd and others.
Now, MSC’s new CEO Soren Toft, a former Maersk executive who joined the company in December, reaffirms the company’s commitment to avoid the famous and increasingly accessible Arctic route, including the Northeast and Northwest Passages.
The company says expanded Arctic shipping could increase emissions of so-called “black carbon,” which are physical particles of unburned carbon that can deposit on land and ice and accelerate the decline of Arctic sea ice. He also cited risks to navigation, which can lead to fuel spills, air quality problems and adversely affect marine biodiversity.
“As a responsible company, this was an obvious decision for us,” Toft commented. “MSC will not try to break through the melting ice in the Arctic to find a new route for commercial shipping and I believe this is a stance that the entire shipping industry should take. Some of our colleagues have already made the same commitment to put the preservation of the Arctic environment before profits. The Northern Sea Route is not a quick fix for today’s market challenges, nor is it a viable long-term strategy.”
Instead of pursuing the shortest route for shipping through the Arctic, MSC said it will instead focus on reducing CO2 emissions by deploying larger, greener 24,000 TEU vessels and seek new fuels and technologies to achieve a zero-carbon future.
MSC now urges that environmental concerns should not be overlooked amid the current debate over the impact of the COVID pandemic and the repercussions of the Suez Canal closure on supply chains, warning that “exploiting Arctic routes is an unwarranted step in the wrong direction.”
“Attempting to open new shipping routes that skim the polar ice cap seems like the ignorant ambition of an 18th century explorer, when we know today that this would pose further risks to humans and many other species in that region, as well as worsening the impact of shipping on climate change,” said Bud Darr, MSC Group Executive Vice President of Maritime Policy and Government Affairs.
“MSC supports the UN International Maritime Organization’s decarbonization goals, including the complete decarbonization of shipping, and sees no global merit in using this potential trade route. The risks and impacts outweigh the benefits of shorter transits. There are no shortcuts to true decarbonization of shipping and this is a shortcut that should definitely be avoided,” Darr added.
Arctic shipping has grown steadily in recent years, mainly driven by Russian exports from its northern Siberian fields. However, in terms of container shipping, there appears to be little interest from the sector for now.
In September 2018, Maersk did send one of its new Baltic feeder vessels on a single Northern Sea Route crossing on its maiden voyage from Asia to northern Europe. Despite the success of the voyage, Maersk stressed that the passage was a one-off trial designed to gain operational experience in the region and to test the vessel’s systems.
Unrelated to the Arctic, shipping industry sources note that there is growing pressure for the Suez Canal to quickly upgrade its technical infrastructure to avoid future shipping disruptions, after the grounding of the Ever Given destabilized international supply chains and forced many vessels to detour through Africa.