The High North requires increased maritime collaboration

The Suez Canal obstruction underlines the need for the development of alternative freight routes. Ignoring this risk may have serious consequences for the world economy.

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Container cargo ship run aground and stuck in Suez Canal, blocking world's busiest waterway. 3D illustration. (Shutterstock)

By Kjell Stokvik, leder for Centre for High North Logistics, Nord universitet.

The canal was blocked for six days and led to 422 ships having to queue. As a result, the world saw oil prices rise by two percent within hours of the occurrence. Egypt estimated they lost between NOK 100 and 130 million each day because the world's most important trade route was closed. In a worst-case scenario, it could have taken weeks to free the giant ship. Considering that around ten percent of the world's trade passes through the Suez Canal, it doesn't require any careful calculation or analysis to ascertain the severity of the situation.

We live in one of the world's richest countries, which finances large sums of money for research on transport and logistics. This is something to be proud of, but we cannot afford to allow the allocation of huge sums of money for research projects to remain solely academic assertions. Norwegian taxpayers deserve knowledge-based security and societal development. This can be achieved by bringing life to research in collaboration with the business sector and social actors. 

A predicted crisis

Human error cannot always be predicted or avoided. It is unreasonable to demand that a contingency plan has an alternative at all times. History shows that the verdict will be based on what could have been done given the knowledge we had before the adverse event occurred.

The temporary obstruction of Suez clearly shows that the lack of alternative sea routes may lead to an economic crisis in the future. What the Norwegian authorities will then be judged on is the fact that they have unique expertise on an alternative trade route, but choose to leave the academics to deal with it alone.

Parallels can be drawn to the field of civil protection and risk management. We recently saw this in the investigation report from Melkøya. It is often the case that we know about the error before it occurs. The risk is ignored. It costs too much, combined with the fact that the uncertainty surrounding the risk makes decision-makers nonchalant.

 

The Arctic Council can provide solutions

Currently, we know that alternative transport and logistics solutions are necessary. Norwegian tax revenues finance research and collaboration across national borders for common societal development. Of the many important projects that receive support, transport and logistics are on the agenda precisely because they are about securing national and global supply chains. However, out of all the Arctic research funding that is granted, less than one percent goes to transport and logistics.

This percentage produces results. The research shows that time spent travelling is reduced by 14 to 20 days if the Northern Sea Route is used instead of the Suez Canal. We also know a great deal about the reasons why the number of international crossings along the route have not experienced the expected growth over the past ten years. It is mainly due to the market and operational conditions. The interesting thing is that the researchers still see growth in the number of sailings on the route, and international sailings are dominated by European ships.

The gains are not only in the figures for cargo volumes and other empirical data. The network that is developed in cross-border research projects is invaluable. Just a few days ago, Russia's Ambassador at Large and the new Senior Arctic Official to the Arctic Council, Nikolay Korchunov, said they would boost maritime transport as a key to preserving the economic interests of the Arctic countries. Over the next two years, Russia will have the chairmanship of the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council, and they will pay special attention to collaboration on sustainable development where maritime transport and the development of new infrastructure are emphasised.

Due to the Barents Cooperation and the work being conducted in the Arctic Council, we have the necessary network. We know that Russia is investing in the Northern Sea Route, and this constitutes a great potential for Norway and Norwegian actors. At the same time, non-Arctic investors are actively showing interest in industrial projects in the High North. This makes the Norwegian attitude crucial in terms of who is allowed to participate in the development.

The key is collaboration and dialogue

Oil extraction is gradually being reduced, and the green shift is a topic everyone is talking about. CHNL participates in projects such as Wind-Assisted Ship Propulsion, Auto Barge and BEAR. It is about sustainable logistics and transport solutions, which are developed in collaboration with business and industry. Such projects can bring life to research. The Norwegian economy and Norwegian interests have an enormous amount to gain from the utilisation of research. If we do not take advantage of the potential, the pendulum may swing the other way and we will become dependent on the interests of foreign countries.

Norway has all the necessary tools to secure an alternative trade route: a unique climate of collaboration with Russia, expertise regarding the Northern Sea Route and a solid national economy. If we set up the potential in the north and the societal benefits of innovative investment in alternative transport routes, Norway will have a good starting point for value creation based on the knowledge that already exists.

The appeal to the Norwegian authorities is:

  • Take part in cross-border collaboration projects under the Russian chairmanship and continue them after Norway takes over in 2023.

  • Contribute to the acquisition of experience-based knowledge and research that addresses how shipping and infrastructure in the Arctic can be made more environmentally friendly and safe.

  • Apply Norwegian research in practice in order to contribute to the development of the alternative sea route, where Norway is the first western port.