Strengthened ‘Polar Code’ will curb shipping pollution

Published on Tue 28 March 2017 5:23pm

The polar regions and oceans have enormous and distinctive environmental significance, and they are particularly fragile. The Antarctic, which is the relevant polar region from our point of view, is a special place. It is a region of great importance to Australia in many respects—culturally, environmentally and economically. We have a corresponding responsibility, and we have shown the necessary stewardship, which we must continue into the 21st century.

Mr Wilson (5:23pm) — I am glad to be speaking in support of the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Amendment (Polar Code) Bill, which amends the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Act. It brings into our domestic law obligations under the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters, also known as the Polar Code. The code, in turn, amends two relevant treaties—the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS, and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, or MARPOL. Those treaties go to the two most significant areas of risk involved when ships and seafarers venture into polar regions, the first being the risk to human life and the second being the risk to the natural environment.

The Polar Code was adopted by the International Maritime Organisation in May 2015 and it came into effect on 1 January this year. That is why we are dealing with it here today. On the need to take further steps through the Polar Code and in future to make shipping in the Arctic and the Antarctic safer and cleaner, it is worth considering the recent and likely future growth of polar shipping. As the shadow minister, the member for Grayndler, mentioned, it is anticipated that by 2020 15 per cent of China’s seaborne trade will pass through the Arctic—that is trade worth half a trillion dollars. The impacts of climate change—the reduction of ice in the Arctic in particular—are providing opportunities for ever-increasing shipping through that region, and with ever-increasing shipping comes greater risks. The polar maritime environment itself presents some special and heightened risks, and the International Maritime Organisation has pointed out:

Poor weather conditions and the relative lack of good charts, communication systems and other navigational aids pose challenges for mariners. The remoteness of the areas makes rescue or clean-up operations difficult and costly. Cold temperatures may reduce the effectiveness of numerous components of the ship, ranging from deck machinery and emergency equipment to sea suctions. When ice is present, it can impose additional loads on the hull, propulsion system and appendages.

The polar regions and oceans have enormous and distinctive environmental significance, and they are particularly fragile. The Antarctic, which is the relevant polar region from our point of view, is a special place. It is a region of great importance to Australia in many respects—culturally, environmentally and economically. We have a corresponding responsibility, and we have shown the necessary stewardship, which we must continue into the 21st century.

Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent; depending on the season and the size of the offshore iceshelf it ranges between 14 million and 30 million square kilometres. The Australian Antarctic Territory alone, which I think is something like 40 per cent of Antarctica, contains 30 per cent of the world’s fresh water, and the Antarctic krill fishery is the largest underexploited fishery in the world. Our connection to and stewardship of Antarctica is very substantial and longstanding. It dates back to the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, led by Sir Douglas Mawson between 1911 and 1914, and it was a later Mawson expedition that resulted in our claim to Antarctic territory. Our claim, as I said, covers something like 40 per cent of Antarctica—it is equivalent to an area the size of Australia minus Queensland. Since 1954 we have maintained critical research facilities, beginning with the Mawson Base and including two other bases, Casey and Davis. We were one of the founding signatories of the Antarctic Treaty, and it was the Hawke Labor government, again as the shadow minister pointed out, that played a leading role in creating the 1991 Madrid protocol, which imposed a 50-year ban on exploration and mining in Antarctica. As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has observed, science is the currency of influence in the Antarctic treaty system. That is why science has been such a focus of Australia’s engagement with Antarctica, in addition to the direct scientific benefits that our work there has.

The changes to the Polar Code that this bill allows us to implement domestically include new mandatory minimum requirements for the design, operation and crewing of ships that operate in polar seas. To be more specific, that includes the structure and stability of vessels, fire protection, the provision of lifeboats, navigation and communication technology, and related matters. It also imposes stronger restrictions on the discharge of oil, other noxious fluids, garbage and sewage. It requires all passenger and cargo ships larger than 500 gross tonnes to have a polar certificate, ensuring such vessels are fit for polar service—though, as has been pointed out by a number of experts, it does not go so far as to require that vessels be ice strengthened. It requires all vessels to develop and carry a polar water operational manual setting out operations and procedures to be followed when sailing in the Arctic or the Antarctic, and it brings the pollution protection in the Arctic to the same level as the Antarctic with respect to heavy fuel oils. That has been the case in the Antarctic for some time; the code now makes that the case in the Arctic as well.

Notwithstanding the benefits or the greater protections that this bill and the updated Polar Code deliver, a number of experts and relevant non-government organisations have taken a clear view that the Polar Code could be strengthened further. I think that is a view that Australia should take. It is certainly a view that New Zealand has taken in already beginning a push for what somebody described as phase 2 of the Polar Code.

In terms of shortcomings that the Polar Code has in its current form, it does still allow non-ice strengthened ships. It does not cover fishing vessels. It only covers vessels of 500 gross tonnes and above. Some have noted that the reporting requirements and the oversighted shipping routes through the Arctic and Antarctic are not strong enough. On that point, Sian Prior, the shipping adviser to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, has noted:

We have concerns that lessons are not being learned from recent shipping incidents, and Polar Code’s adoption will do little to reduce risks to the Antarctic environment … The Polar Code should demand that ships sailing in Antarctic waters are adequately strengthened and stabilised for dealing with ice collisions, that they report their positions on a regular basis to a centralized system, and that they are routed away from important wildlife sites, such as bird nesting colonies, unless strict wildlife watching protocols are enforced.

One of the shortcomings in the Polar Code currently is the lack of strong reference and clear guidance with respect to the dangers of climate change. There is no doubt that climate change presents the greatest risk to the polar regions of the planet. It certainly presents the greatest risk to the Antarctic.

We know that a quarter of all carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean. That causes acidification. That acidification has a very harmful effect on marine life. I was reading something recently that talked about how the kind of marine formate in the Southern Ocean is not dissimilar, in some respects, to the Great Barrier Reef. We have seen over the last couple of years what rising ocean temperatures do to the health of reefs. We have had two consecutive years of severe bleaching events affecting the Great Barrier Reef, which has caused coral death on a pretty large scale, directly related to ocean temperature and ocean temperature rises.

Last week, we had Science meets Parliament. I was very glad to take part in that. I was fortunate to sit on a table that included some brilliant scientists, including some people with a specific interest in the Great Barrier Reef. It was sobering to hear from them the kinds of impacts that are being felt by the Great Barrier Reef. If ocean temperatures continue to rise, if the ocean continues to be required to absorb more and more carbon dioxide and acidifies as a result, we are only going to see increasing damage and impact on species and the loss of species in time to come. So if we are serious about protecting our oceans, including the Southern Ocean and the maritime environment around Antarctica, we have to be serious about climate change.

I note that Dr Jonny Stark, who is a project leader in the Australian Antarctic division, has said on the subject of carbon dioxide:

Carbon dioxide is more soluble in cold water. Polar waters are acidifying at twice the rate of tropical or temperate regions, so we expect these ecosystems to be among the first impacted from ocean acidification …

Research shows the pink encrusting algae, known as crustose coralline algae, may decrease in extent in a more acidic future ocean, as it incorporates calcium into its structure, and this becomes harder for organisms to obtain as the acidity of the seawater increases.

Antarctica may be one of the first places we see detrimental effects of ocean acidification on these organisms.

The Polar Code is a step forward. It does introduce some greater protections against pollution in the polar regions—the Arctic and the Antarctic. It provides some welcome strengthening restrictions and mandatory requirements when it comes to vessels and seafarers, and shipping practices. But we should remember that, as we welcome this kind of development, there is more to be done. We should look forward to that work. We should resolve to be a leader in that area. We have been a leader in Antarctica for a long time. That is something we should be proud of. It is something for which we should double our efforts to carry into the future, rather than watching others do it for us. Some of that will be specific to shipping. Some of it will be specific to the Antarctic. But a lot of it will have to do with more general areas like climate change.

On this issue, I am happy as a member of the opposition to support the passage of this bill.

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