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Climate change cuts the shipping route between China and Europe by 5,000 miles

The Venta Maersk in the Russian port of Vladivostok as it prepares to set off on its Arctic voyage. (Yuri Maltsev/REUTERS)

When the Suez Canal was opened in Egypt in 1869, the impact on global trade was revolutionary. Instead of having to sail around Africa, ships could now go straight from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea — connecting Europe with Asia.

Still, the distances, even via the Suez Canal, remained enormous: 13,000 miles separate East Asia from Europe.

About 150 years later, the next human-made revolution could cut the distance almost by half. As climate change progresses, the ice around the Arctic Circle is thawing and opening up a much shorter and potentially economically viable shipping route to the north of Russia. With a distance of 8,000 miles, container ships would arrive about two weeks faster.

What has long been a Russian dream is increasingly matched by commercial interest in Western Europe.

The world’s biggest shipping company, Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk Group, announced this week that it will send its first container ship via the Arctic route within the next few days. “It is important to underline that this is a one-off trial designed to explore an unknown route for container shipping and to collect scientific data — and not the launch of a new product,” a company spokeswoman told the Associated Press.

The trial journey could mark the beginning of a new era in Arctic commercial shipping between three regions — Asia, North America and Europe — whose exports account for almost 90 percent of world trade.

In 2016, Copenhagen Business School researchers concluded that the route could become easily accessible to container ships at some point within the next 25 years. “The six years with the lowest observed summer sea ice extent have all occurred within the last decade. New forecast models are continuously bringing forward expectations of ice-free summers in the Arctic, creating a significant potential for previously impossible maritime activities," they wrote.

But with Russia and China pushing ahead, the Arctic route could become a real alternative much more quickly than many initially assumed. Temperatures in the Arctic have reached up to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius) during some recent summer days, and a prolonged heat wave would mean that container ships would no longer need expensive icebreakers to clear paths for them. So far, cargo vessels on the Arctic route are also required to have a thicker hull than ordinary container ships, which has limited the amount of goods they can carry. In the future, the sea north to Russia may become accessible to more ordinary and bigger ships, too.

Being able to reach Europe within two weeks would make shipping roughly as fast as the railway route that is increasingly popular among Asian and European companies because of its speed. Cargo trains need about 14 days to go from eastern China to Central Europe. Experts say the journey eventually may take only about 10 days once infrastructure improvements are completed. But sending goods via train is twice as expensive as shipping them.

China and Russia have been pushing ahead with their search for alternatives to the southern shipping route via the Suez Canal in recent years, as tensions in the South China Sea have mounted.

For Russia, the northeastern Arctic route would also be a welcome revenue source. Given that the route passes along vast stretches within Moscow’s exclusive economic zone, companies seeking to use it would be billed by the Russian government. And even though very few ships actually use the route now, the Kremlin has ambitious plans for its alternative to the Suez Canal. It is currently eyeing the shipment of 80 million tons of goods by the middle of the next decade.

Meanwhile, China’s ambitions in the Arctic are both economic and political. With its $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing is seeking to invest in infrastructure routes across the world to boost its exports and to build economic hubs. A quicker shipping route to Europe would naturally fit into those efforts and was included in a white paper published by Beijing in January.

In its January publication, China called itself a “near-Arctic state,” even though it is located about 1,000 miles from the Arctic, and called for a “Polar Silk Road.” Amid Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, concerns have mounted that China might be increasingly willing to defend its trade interests with military might, even though experts say that a similar scenario in the Arctic Sea is unlikely, at least in the near future.

The northern route would also give China an alternative to a southern route dominated by U.S. allies.

“China assumes that it will clash with the United States at some point,” said Thomas Heberer, a China expert with the University of Duisburg-Essen. “And in case the United States decides to block its trade routes in the South China Sea, it needs an alternative.”