The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the Polar Code and the realities of shipping in the Arctic and the Antarctic

By Antony Mullin


The River Thames was but a short skip and a jump from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) offices, but although there was no smell of brine in the air, our visit proved an invaluable insight into the workings of the United Nations (UN) specialist agency for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships.  This was an opportunity for the MSc Geopolitics and Security group to experience at first hand the workings of the only UN agency located in the United Kingdom.

The introduction of the Polar Code (a risk based approach for the safe operations of ships in the polar environments) is due to be implemented at the beginning of 2017, and with the steady increase in shipping in the Arctic and Antarctic (with the predicted reduction in sea ice expected), this cannot arrive soon enough.


An afternoon observing how the mechanisms of a UN agency works to develop, discuss and finally reach a consensus on the regulatory framework for ensuring a truly global industry operates without compromising safety, security and damage to the environment was an eye opening experience.


The scale of international shipping was brought home with one single slide showing all the global ship movements taking place.  Almost 90 per cent of global trade is undertaken via merchant shipping, as the globalised world demands more of everything.  More of everything means bigger and faster ships, higher costs to build and operate them, all things that invite challenges to financial minds because the bottom line matters.  As a result, the role of the IMO encourages an open forum for innovation and efficient solutions to the global problems and issues faced by operators and countries as they drive economic growth through international trade.


When you look at the picture above (source:, there are two striking features:

  1. How concentrated the ship movements are around North Africa and across the Atlantic & Pacific Oceans; what you would actually expect given the population centres of the world; and
  2. The limited number of shipping traces logged to the Arctic and Antarctic.

Given the limited amount of shipping movements outside of the congested centre of the globe, the creation of the Polar Code would seem to be a very big solution for a very small problem.  However, that would overlook the increased risk to polar eco-systems, navigational demands of an ever-changing diverse environment, extreme weather conditions and remoteness from assistance.

The purpose of the Polar Code is to use a risk based approach for the safe operations of ships in the polar environments.  One of the key principles is the design of ships and the safety features to mitigate as much risk as possible.  The code consists of a number of mandatory elements to ensure safe operations in extreme environments and pollution prevention.  This is supported by a number of functional recommendations in order to deliver the goals set out in the code.


All this is due to be formally implemented on the 1st January 2017.  This cannot come soon enough, as accidents happen.  Witness the Aurora Australis, which broke its moorings at the end of February in 80mph blizzards and drifted uncontrollably before running aground.  Fortunately, being a specialist icebreaking ship, even though there was a breach in the hull, the ship did not break up leading to a loss of life or spilling fuel into the delicate eco-system of the Antarctic.  Disaster avoided (just)!

The ultimate goal of the Polar Code is to provide for safe ship operations and the protection of the polar environment by addressing risks present in polar waters that are not adequately mitigated by other instruments of the IMO.  As such it is designed to supplement existing IMO instruments and it could be argued has been subject to the inbuilt consensus approach intrinsic to the operation of the IMO.   As it stands today, the Polar Code provides improved and uniform safety & environmental standards for shipping in the polar environments, however, the transportation of heavy fuel oils (which are slow to breakdown in cold marine environments) and ballast water management continue to impose underlying risks to polar environments.

The IMO, with the implementation of the Polar Code, have taken an important step toward the safety and environmental security of the polar environments.

Antony Mullin joined the Royal Holloway MSc in Geopolitics and Security in 2015, after twelve years at BG Group in a variety of senior roles. His research interests are in global energy security.


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