Danish shipping firm tests Russian Arctic route

A Danish vessel loaded with Russian fish and South Korean electronics arrived Thursday in Saint Petersburg, becoming the first container ship to navigate the Russian Arctic as the ice pack melts and recedes.

Danish shipping firm tests Russian Arctic route
A file photo of a Maersk container ship sailing under Denmark's Great Belt Bridge. Photo: Erik Refner/Ritzau Scanpix

Maersk's new ice class container vessel, Venta Maersk, embarked on a trial journey from the Russian far eastern port of Vladivostok in late August, completing the Arctic route in five weeks.

“We are carrying out a one-off trial passage of the Northern Sea Route from East to West,” said Janina von Spalding, a spokeswoman for the world's biggest shipping company.

The vessel earlier made stops at Russia's Vostochny Port and Busan in South Korea before passing through the Bering Strait and Germany's Bremerhaven and finally entering Saint Petersburg.

The ship carrying 3,600 containers and designed to operate in extreme weather conditions was assisted by nuclear icebreakers.

The route along Siberia's northern coast could until now only be used by far smaller ships and was only passable several weeks a year.

But as a result of rising temperatures and melting ice it is becoming accessible for increasingly longer periods.

Russia is investing heavily in the development of this maritime shortcut that allows ships to cut the journey to Asian ports by 15 days, compared with the conventional route through the Suez Canal.

Maersk said the one-off trial crossing presented a “unique opportunity to gain operational experience in a new area and to test vessel systems and crew capabilities”.

The company stressed however it “currently does not see the Northern Sea Route as a viable commercial alternative to existing east-west routes”.

The passage is only feasible “around three months a year” and requires additional costs to hire accompanying icebreakers, Maersk said.

Nuclear-powered liquified natural gas carriers already use the Northern Sea Route to ship their cargo to Europe from the Arctic Yamal peninsula, where Russia's Novatek and France's Total opened a giant plant last year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the Northern Sea Route to become a global transport artery and this month once again called on “all interested parties to develop this promising route”.

In its draft budget for 2019-2021, Russia plans to invest more than 40 billion rubles (519 million euros) into the development of the route.

This includes investing in port infrastructure and nuclear icebreaker construction in order to boost ship traffic.

Sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk dramatically in just a few decades.

Russian energy expert Ruslan Tankayev believes the Northern Sea Route could be passable all year round by 2050.

He said that global warming is a “terrible evil” for countries such as Africa and Latin America, but added it could provide opportunities for Russia and Canada.

The route, he added, is not only several thousand kilometres shorter than passing through the Suez Canal but also much safer with virtually no piracy risks.

Tankayev predicted that Arctic traffic will grow to 40 million tonnes in the coming years.

This rush worries environmental protection groups who fear oil spills that would threaten a well preserved ecosystem.

“It's important to know what kind of fuel will be used,” said Greenpeace activist Rashid Alimov.

An accidental oil spill would be very dangerous as there is practically no infrastructure to treat the consequences and oil stays in the environment longer in cold weather, Alimov said.

READ ALSO: Denmark's Maersk Tankers ends Iran shipping after renewed US sanctions


‘We still have a chance’: Danish minister’s relief after Glasgow climate deal

Denmark's climate minister Dan Jørgensen has expressed relief that a meaningful climate change deal was struck in Glasgow last night, after a last minute move by India and China nearly knocked it off course.

'We still have a chance': Danish minister's relief after Glasgow climate deal
Denmark's climate minister Dan Jørgensen speaks at the announcement of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance in Glasgow on Tuesday. Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Ritzau Scanpix

“For the first time ever, coal and fossil fuel subsidies have been mentioned. I’m very, very happy about that,” he told Denmark’s Politiken newspaper. “But I am also very disappointed that the stronger formulations were removed at the last minute.” 

Late on Saturday, the world’s countries agreed the Glasgow Climate Pact, after negotiations dragged on while governments haggled over phasing out coal. 

Denmark is one of the countries leading the phase out of fossil fuels, formally launching the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) with ten other countries and states at the Glasgow summit on Tuesday, announcing an end to oil exploration last December, and committing to phase out coal by 2030 back in 2017. 

Jørgensen conceded that the deal struck on Saturday was nowhere near far-reaching enough to keep global temperature rises below 1.5C, which scientists have estimated is critical to limiting the impacts of climate change, but he said the decision to hold another summit in Egypt next year meant that this goal could still be reached. 

“The big, good news is that we could have closed the door today. If we had followed the rules, we would only have had to update the climate plans in 2025, and the updates would only apply from 2030,” he said, adding that this would be too late. “Now we can fight on as early as next year. This is very rare under the auspices of the UN.” 

Limiting temperature rises to 1.5C was still possible, he said. 

“We have a chance. The framework is in place to make the right decisions. There was a risk that that framework would not be there.” 

Jørgensen said that he had come close to tears when India launched a last-minute bid to water down the language when it came to coal, putting the entire deal at risk. 

“It was all really about to fall to the ground,” he said. “The assessment was that either the Indians got that concession or there was no agreement.” 

Sebastian Mernild, a climate researcher at the University of Southern Denmark, said he was disappointed by the lack of binding targets and global deadlines in the plan, but said it was nonetheless “a step in the right direction”, particularly the requirement that signatories to the Paris Agreement must tighten their 2030 emissions reduction targets by the end of 2022.

“It’s good that this thing with fossil fuels has got in,” he added. “It’s a pity that you don’t have to phase them out, but only reduce.”

He said the test of whether the Glasgow meeting is a success or failure would not come until the various aspects of the plan are approved and implemented by members states.