Now-resolved Suez Canal blockage shows value of Arctic shipping route, Russia says

The 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker bringing politicians to the North Pole.
The 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker bringing politicians to the North Pole.

Publish date: March 31, 2021

While hundreds of ship and tankers were blocked from passing through the Suez Canal by a stranded container ship, Russia’s Energy Ministry wasted no time reminding the world of the Northern Sea Route, the 6,000-kilometer sea artery joining Europe and Asia through the Arctic said to lop days off conventional cargo passages.

The Arctic passage is “highly secure” and holds “competitive positions in terms of transportation costs as well as by reliability in comparison to alternative routes,” the ministry said.

It also shaves 4,000 nautical miles off traditional Asia to Europe shipping routes through the Suez Canal – at least during those months when it isn’t clogged with ice. But climate change, which is beating that ice back at an alarming pace, is changing those considerations.

For the past several years, the Kremlin has poured investment and political capital into Arctic development with the hope of boosting cargo shipments along the Northern Sea Route in convoys led by new-line Russian nuclear icebreakers – a service for which the government collects tolls. A bevy of new ports along coast of northern Siberia, built on the back of lavish tax breaks, are poised to pour more weight into the shipping tonnage flowing through the passage, which Vladimir Putin demands reach 80 million tons annually by 2024.

So substantial are the Kremlin’s designs on the Arctic that Putin has told the media that some 10 percent of the government’s investments are now bound up in Polar development.

The boom-town efforts have drawn muted criticism from certain Russian government agencies, who have warned that the pace of Arctic growth not only fails to take into account the effects of climate change but could well make them worse.  Those voices appear right. According to the Barents Observer, Russia’s federal weather service this week warned that the Arctic – which is already warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the globe – is far hotter now than it was just a few years ago.

Still, Russia’s national strategy for addressing climate change emphasizes that the government will “use the advantages” of warming temperatures with an eye to expanding cargo navigation through the Northern Sea Route as Arctic ice retreats.

Last year, the route saw 33 million tons of cargo shipped, while the Suez Canal, unblocked on Monday after a week of disruption, transports more than 3 million tons of cargo daily. But given rising trade volumes, the emergence of additional short routes for cargo delivery is inevitable, Russia’s energy ministry said.

Yet despite the climate risks, and the fact that year-round navigation through the route isn’t expected until 2025-2030, Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, which oversees the northern sea route, expect cargo volumes to surpass even Putin’s demands following the Suez incident.

“The northern sea route’s development hedges logistical risks and makes global trade more sustainable. Undoubtedly, such Asian countries as China, Japan, and South Korea will take the precedent of the Suez Canal’s blockage into consideration in their long-term strategic plans,” said Vladimir Panov, a special representative for Arctic development at Rosatom, according to Interfax news agency.

Russia is uniquely vulnerable to climate change, with hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of infrastructure in arctic areas built on foundations of permafrost. At the same time, its average temperatures have increased 2.5 times more quickly than the average global air temperature since the mid-1970s.

In recent years, Russia has experienced disastrous flood and fires with massive wildfires engulfing Siberia in 2019. That year also marked its hottest on record, according to the Russian federal meteorological service. That record was broken by 2020.

Russia formally adopted the 2015 Paris climate agreement in 2020, and has seen a number of regional-level drives to construct wind and solar plants, as well as to bolster infrastructure for electric cars.

But Putin is famously hostile to the notion of man-made climate change. At an Arctic forum in 2017, he said global warming was “a factor that bolsters optimism,” adding that it “provides more favorable conditions for economic activity in this region.” He once even quipped that climate change would allow Russians to save money on fur coats.


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