Environmental Group Warns EU About to Remove Black Carbon From Maritime Regulation

Cargo ship
Cargo ship emitting black carbon from its smokestack. (Source: Cyprien Hauser via CC BY-ND 2.0)

The EU Council could remove mentions of black carbon emissions in the Arctic from the EU’s maritime regulation this week. Environmental activists warn that black carbon is detrimental to Arctic sea ice and needs to be curbed quickly and decisively.

A coalition of environmental advocacy organizations sounds the alarm bells ahead of an EU Council meeting in Strasburg this week. The Clean Arctic Alliance warns that during upcoming discussions the EU Council aims to remove mentions of black carbon from the 2026 review of the EU Maritime Regulation. 

The maritime regulation is part of the EU’s larger “Fit for 55” effort which outlines the bloc’s goals to reduce harmful climate change emissions by 55 percent by 2030 and achieve full carbon neutrality by 2050.

Currently the EU Maritime Regulation does not formally regulate black carbon emissions but importantly the issue would have to be addressed as part of a required review in 2026. If references to black carbon were to be removed from the regulation now, no such review would be mandatory in 2026.

Black carbon emitted from the smokestacks of shipping vessels is a powerful pollutant accelerating the melting of sea and land-based ice. The amount of black carbon emissions in part depends on the type of fuel vessels burn in their engines.

Heavy fuel oil, which is the cheapest and dirtiest type, is still allowed to be used across the Arctic, except for the waters around Svalbard.

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As HNN previously reported, the EU contributes significantly to black carbon emissions in the Arctic, both from EU-flagged vessels and ships destined for or originating in Europe.

Counter to EU Arctic Strategy

The 2021 EU Arctic Strategy explicitly mentions the importance of tackling the issue of black carbon. 

The document calls for making the Arctic more resilient through environmental legislation including concerted action against black carbon and reducing their emissions “by as much as 33 percent” by 2025.

“The EU’s Fit for 55 Fuel EU Maritime Regulation outcome being discussed in Strasbourg this week already fails to include a provision to regulate black carbon emissions, the largest source of shipping’s climate warming impact after CO2 - cutting any mention of doing so in the future is not only deplorable, it makes a complete mockery of the EU’s own commitments made in its 2021 Arctic Strategy to lead the world on reducing Arctic ship pollution,” explains Clean Arctic Alliance Lead Advisor Sian Prior.

It makes a complete mockery of the EU’s own commitments.
Clean Arctic Alliance Lead Advisor Sian Prior

According to the Clean Arctic Alliance, the EU Council’s push to remove any reference to black carbon ahead of the review in 2026, is the result of the member state’s uncertainty on how to effectively tackle the issue of black carbon.

In response to a request for comment an EU official informed HNN that the Council’s position on the “particular topic in question” will be decided on Wednesday, February 15 ahead of the interinstitutional negotiations (“trilogue”) between the Council and the European Parliament the following day. Due to the negotiating process being ongoing the EU official was unable to comment further on the matter.

Voluntary measures

The EU is not the only international body struggling to put in place a strong and mandatory regime to address the issue. Black carbon has also repeatedly been discussed within the International Maritime Organization (IMO), but no legally binding regulations have been agreed upon.

In 2021 the IMO adopted a non-binding resolution to reduce black carbon emissions in the Arctic. The efforts are aimed at curtailing harmful particulate matter emanating from ships traveling through the Arctic. The voluntary measures call on flag states to encourage vessels to switch to lighter, distillate fuels and phase out heavy fuel oils (HFO).

Lighter fuels burn cleaner and thus emit less black carbon, or soot, coming out of a vessel’s smoke stack. 

Some countries, including Norway, have already set more stringent rules for HFO and black carbon. Last year Norway announced plans to ban the use and carriage of HFO around Svalbard, leapfrogging the IMO’s regulation and EU efforts.