Op-ed: Shipping Industry Must Seize Opportunity Posed by Arctic Heavy Fuel Oil Ban

Since 2022, the use and carriage of HFO in Norwegian waters around the island archipelago of Svalbard has been banned. (Photo: Bernt Rostad)

On July 1st, an International Maritime Organization ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil by Arctic shipping will come into force. At first glance, this looks like great news indeed for the Arctic environment, and the people and wildlife who depend upon it. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.

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When the prohibition on use and carriage of polluting heavy fuel oil (HFO) was agreed by the IMO in June 2021, it included significant loopholes allowing countries to grant waivers, and for shipping companies to make use of exemptions to the ban.

As a result, the ban will only come up to full speed in 2029. Until then, HFO will no longer be allowed to be used or carried for use while sailing in Arctic waters, unless a ship has a protected fuel tank or has been issued with a waiver by an Arctic coastal nation - meaning that potentially around 74% of Arctic shipping will remain unaffected by the ban.

Arctic shipping is increasing

Yet Arctic shipping is growing. Recent Arctic Council studies of ship activity in the Arctic have shown an increase of 37 percent between 2013 and 2023 and a 111 percent increase in total distance traveled over the same time period.

In recent days, an Irish vessel, the Arklow Wind, was fined by authorities in Svalbard for carrying heavy fuel oil. Since 2022, it has been forbidden to carry or use heavy fuel oil in territorial waters around the Arctic archipelago.

Around 74% of Arctic shipping will remain unaffected by the ban.

Dr. Sian Prior, Lead Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance

The IMO’s ban, in its current form, leaves the Arctic marine environment exposed to the risk of devastating spills of HFO and to emissions of black carbon.

The International Maritime Organization has already formally recognized that black carbon is the second largest source of ship climate warming and is responsible for around 20% of shipping’s climate impact (on a 20-year basis).

Black carbon has a disproportionately high impact when released in and near the Arctic – when emitted from the exhausts of ships burning oil-based fuel and settles onto snow and ice, it accelerates melting and the loss of reflectivity – the albedo effect – which creates a feedback loop that further exacerbates local and global heating.

The bare minimum

With the Earth already plunged into a climate crisis, and with the potential for rapid Arctic changes to prompt disruption to the polar jet stream and the Gulf Stream, it is not enough for the shipping community to do the bare minimum.

This is why the Clean Arctic Alliance is calling on IMO member states, particularly Arctic coastal countries, to implement the Arctic HFO ban and enforce it fully with immediate effect - without resorting to loopholes.

By doing so, the IMO can significantly reduce the risk of HFO spills and also see co-benefits - reducing air pollution and slowing down the impacts of climate warming on the Arctic.

IMO Member States, especially Arctic coastal countries, must go further than the IMO ban by implementing it in ways that truly protect the Arctic from HFO spills and black carbon emissions—and that means refusing to offer loopholes to ship operators.

The shipping industry can seize this as a landmark opportunity

Dr. Sian Prior, Lead Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance

Landmark opportunity

The shipping industry can seize upon July 1st as a landmark opportunity to demonstrate its willingness to embrace a cleaner future; instead of hiding behind the use of exemptions, shipping companies can instead switch to readily available, relatively cleaner fuels such as diesel or distillate marine fuels, or to alternative forms of propulsion while installing diesel particulate filters.

This would not only set an example for other industry players but also demonstrate that the shipping world is willing and ready to go above and beyond the call of duty and move towards eventual decarbonization.

Combining better fuel choices today with the use of existing technology, ships operating in the Arctic would see black carbon or soot (a component of particulate matter) emissions reductions of more than 90%.

Diesel fuel

As black carbon remains in the atmosphere for only a short period of time, if all shipping in the Arctic used lighter distillate fuels and installed diesel particulate filters - existing technology long used in land transport to reduce diesel fuel emissions - we would see rapid removal of a massive threat to Arctic sea ice - which is crucial for balancing the climate and weather in the Arctic and further afield.”

The use of scrubbers, however, must be avoided—they are an excuse to keep using HFO while transferring air pollution into marine pollution.

Moving to gas fossil fuels such as LNG simply replaces one potent, short-lived but high-impact climate pollutant—black carbon—with another, methane.

The use of diesel fuel, along with the installation of particulate filters or precipitators, as prescribed for other forms of transport, can quickly reduce emissions of black carbon by more than 90 percent and be a solid first step on the route to decarbonization.

Dr Sian Prior is the Lead Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance. Made up of 23 not-for-profit organizations, the Clean Arctic Alliance campaigns to persuade governments to take action to protect the Arctic, its wildlife, and its people https://cleanarctic.org/

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