Black carbon emission from shipping is a big threat to Arctic Ocean

Ahead of this week’s Arctic Council gathering in Iceland, an international coalition of 22 non-profit organizations is calling on Arctic foreign ministers to demonstrate global leadership by agreeing to cut black carbon emissions from shipping and to take effective action on Arctic-wide elimination of heavy fuel oil. 

“This week’s Arctic Council Ministerial provides a unique opportunity for foreign ministers to demonstrate global leadership by committing to immediate reductions in black carbon emissions from shipping and rapid, Arctic-wide elimination of heavy fuel oil (HFO)”, said Dr Sian Prior, Lead Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance.

“By including this commitment in the Reykjavík Declaration expected on May 20, Arctic Council foreign ministers can send a strong signal to the international shipping community that it must play its part in contributing to Arctic-wide efforts to reduce the impacts of short-lived climate forcers on the Arctic, and that the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) ban on use and carriage of heavy fuel in the Arctic must be both strengthened and fully implemented when its Marine Environment Protection Committee meets in June.

“The Clean Arctic Alliance is also calling on Arctic foreign ministers attending the Arctic Ministerial to commit to introducing measures to reduce black carbon emissions from shipping in their own Arctic waters, along with national bans on the use and carriage of HFO in Arctic waters.”

The Arctic Council now has a chance of global leadership

Norway is already leading the way on getting HFO out of the Arctic, by extending an existing ban on HFO in the waters surrounding Svalbard, which will require the use of alternative, cleaner fuels and stop all HFO use and carriage in the area. 

“If progress is to be made in dealing with the impact of shipping in the Arctic and protecting the remaining Arctic summer sea ice, Ministers from Iceland, the United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and the Kingdom of Denmark, must follow Norway’s example, and move faster and much more effectively than the IMO, rather than waiting until the end of the decade”, added Prior.

In November 2020, more than ten years after the Arctic Council first concluded that oil spills are the greatest risk posed by shipping, the IMO agreed to ban the use and carriage of HFO in the Arctic. The IMO is due to make a final decision on the ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil during its meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC76, June 10-17), and will also consider a proposal for a resolution addressing black carbon emissions from ships. 

As currently drafted, the IMO’s proposed Arctic HFO ban will not be fully effective until mid-2029; with black carbon emissions from ships likely to continue to grow in the meantime, and the risk of HFO spills will remain. 

Harmful effects of HFO and black carbon

By switching vessels operating in the Arctic currently using HFO to readily available cleaner fuels, or to alternative forms of propulsion, black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping can be quickly reduced by around 30%. Use of diesel fuel along with the installation of particulate filters or precipitators, as prescribed for other forms of transport, can reduce emissions of black carbon by over 90%.

Around the world, ships typically burn the cheapest and dirtiest fuel left over from the oil refining process, the HFO which produces high levels of black carbon when burned. In January 2020, a new fuel standard was introduced by the IMO requiring ships’ fuels to contain no more than 0.5% sulphur leading the development and use of so-called very low sulphur fuels (VLSFOs).

When ships burn HFO, they produce black carbon particles, which are emitted into the environment via their exhaust fumes. These short-lived climate forcers contribute to the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere and when they fall on snow, or on glacier ice and sea ice, their warming impact is 7-10 times greater than on land, as the reflectivity (albedo) is reduced, and consequently the absorption of heat increases. 

Shipping’s black carbon emission has risen in the Arctic

About 7-21% of global shipping’s climate warming impacts can be attributed to black carbon and the remainder being CO2. Black carbon emissions from shipping have already increased by 85% between 2015 and 2019, and more Arctic shipping using HFO will lead to further increases in black carbon emissions, fueling an already accelerating feedback loop. The IMO’s HFO ban will only reduce the volume of black carbon emissions by a mere 5% when it enters into force in July 2024. 

Although shipping only contributes 2% of the black carbon in the Arctic, it has a much greater heating impact, as other sources of black carbon are higher in the atmosphere with less chance of falling on ice and snow. While most anthropogenic sources of black carbon pollution are being reduced in the Arctic, shipping emissions of black carbon have risen 8% globally in the past decade, and in the Arctic by 85% between 2015 and 2019 alone. 

With climate warming driving the ongoing loss of multi-season Arctic sea ice, the region is opening up to more shipping traffic. Between 2013 and 2019, data published by the Arctic Council showed a 25% increase in shipping traffic and a 75% increase in the total distance sailed in the Arctic.  It is to be expected that further increases in black carbon emissions from shipping will only further contribute to an already accelerating feedback loop.

IMO’s Arctic HFO ban has loopholes

In November 2020, the IMO approved a ban on the use and carriage of HFO in the Arctic – a ban that is set to be adopted this June. Although environmental and indigenous groups had fought for years for the Arctic to be free of HFO, this ban contains serious loopholes which will mean minimal reductions in the use and carriage of HFO in 2024 when implemented. 

Meanwhile current growth in Arctic shipping is likely to lead to an increase in HFO use and carriage in the Arctic between now and mid-2024 when the ban takes effect.  As for the loopholes in the ban, they will only be closed by mid-2029, which by then, there will be even more HFO use and carriage.  Under this regime, black carbon emissions are likely, for now, to continue to increase in the Arctic.

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