Needed Now, More Than Ever: The Arctic Ban On Heavy Fuel Oil

Needed Now, More Than Ever: The Arctic Ban On Heavy Fuel Oil

In February 2020, just before the coronavirus lockdowns went global – leading to widespread cancellation of international meetings, world governments agreed on terms for getting the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel out of the Arctic. This agreement, on the wording of a regulation on a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (HFO) by ships navigating the Arctic, was reached at the London HQ of the International Maritime Organization – the UN body that regulates international shipping, during a meeting of its Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR) subcommittee.

PPR meetings generally receive little attention outside of shipping media, but with several crucial issues regarding shipping’s impact on the Arctic under discussion, PPR 7, or as it became known, the IMO Arctic Summit, was different. The agenda included discussion on measures to reduce risks associated with the use and carriage of HFO as fuel by shipping in Arctic waters, and also on the reduction of impacts of black carbon emissions from global shipping on the Arctic region. The idea to proceed with a ban had been proposed at an earlier IMO meeting – PPR 7 was tasked with developing the structure for what that ban should look like. Inside the meeting, representatives of the 19-member Clean Arctic Alliance worked the corridors and coffee breaks to persuade delegates to agree on the best possible outcome for the Arctic region. Our organisation – the Clean Arctic Alliance – brought expert speakers to lead side events, and supported events led by Indigenous Arctic groups such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council who brought their demand for a HFO ban to London.

Outside the building, activists from organisations such as Extinction Rebellion and Ecohustler directed a spotlight on the IMO’s London headquarters with creative and visually arresting street theatre.

Protest Against heavy fuel oil use in the Arctic oustide the International Maritime Organisation, London, February 2020
Protests outside PPR7: Photo: Eoghan McDonaugh

The meeting had barely opened when news filtered through that Canada, a country that until now had not publicly voiced an opinion on getting rid of HFO, had officially announced its support for the ban, making it the seventh of eight Arctic countries – after Denmark (with Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the US, to back the ban – and leaving Russia as the only outlier.

As the week progressed, it became clear that there was still no consensus on a speedy and comprehensive ban. The implementation date crept further away, exemptions for some ships of newer designs with protection for fuel tanks were sought, and even complete waivers for ships flying Arctic State flags no matter their age or construction. Eventually, it became clear we were near to reaching an agreement on the ban’s wording. While NGOs couldn’t comment on IMO meeting proceedings until the end of the meeting, news had filtered out to industry, with the CEO of Greenland’s Royal Arctic Line, Verner Hammeken, already asking – in public – for an exemption until 2029, or even 2040. 

As the meeting ground to a conclusion late on a Friday afternoon, progress had been made on developing the draft regulation, which if approved and adopted, will come into effect in the middle of 2024. However, the inclusion of several gaping loopholes in the draft text could mean the ban will not truly come into effect until mid-2029, leaving the Arctic, already exposed to increased shipping, faced with the risk of HFO spills and direct exposure from black carbon emissions for close to another decade. Even worse, it is highly likely that HFO use and carriage as fuel in the Arctic will actually increase during this time – so the current risk is going to increase.

In the meantime, one of the loopholes will allow countries with an Arctic coastline to permit continued use of HFO by vessels flying their flags, while a second loophole means that any ship with a double hull or protected fuel tanks will also be able to carry and use HFO as fuel until 2029. In a second blow, there was also a further delay on taking any action, even voluntary, to reduce black carbon emissions from shipping that will affect the Arctic, despite the IMO and its Members working on this issue for nine years.

The Clean Arctic Alliance, along with the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Bering Sea Elders Group gave a guarded welcome to the IMO’s progress towards a ban, but denounced the inclusion of loopholes in the draft HFO Arctic ban text. The draft regulation will now be forwarded for approval to a meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC). The next meeting of MEPC, which will be the 75th session, is currently anticipated for autumn 2020 – for now, but we can’t be sure if this meeting will happen, or if it does, whether HFO will be on the agenda or the following meeting (MEPC 76), which likely take place in 2021. Either way, the IMO must take the opportunity to agree to action to reduce black carbon emissions that have an impact in the Arctic, and this action should be the switching from HFO to distillate or cleaner fuels.

While some progress was made on controlling heavy fuel oil use and carriage as fuel in the Arctic at the February meeting, the Clean Arctic Alliance was dismayed that Member States seem prepared to accept another decade of risks to Arctic communities, the environment and wildlife from HFO spills, as well as continued threats to climate and health from black carbon emissions. With the climate crisis already having significant impacts across the Arctic region, routes opening up to increased ship traffic, and scientists predicting ice-free summers in the Arctic before 2050, IMO Member States must take a more ambitious stance when the ban does come up for approval.

An initial examination by the Clean Arctic Alliance of the draft regulation by the Clean Arctic Alliance suggests, based on current Arctic shipping levels, that the loopholes mean over three-quarters of the HFO currently used in the Arctic could be exempt or delayed from implementing the regulation, which equates to more than two-thirds of the HFO carried on board vessels as fuel.

Of further concern is that these loopholes will cause an increase in HFO use and carriage in the Arctic. HFO use is already on the increase– between 2015 and 2017 there was a 30% increase in the numbers of ships operating on HFO and a 55% increase in the amount of black carbon emitted from the use of HFO – and this is likely to carry on rising [1]. In addition, the loopholes will mean that as older ships (required to implement the regulation in 2024) are replaced with new ships with double-hulls or protected fuel tanks (not covered by the regulation until 2029), so the amount of HFO used and carried in the Arctic, along with black carbon emissions will increase.

The Clean Arctic Alliance is calling on IMO Member States to tighten up the timelines and close the loopholes which will delay the implementation of the draft regulation for double-hull vessels and vessels with protected fuel tanks and which allow waivers for Arctic country flagged vessels.

IMO Member States must step up to their obligations and pursue additional safeguards; if HFO continues to be burned in the Arctic until July 2029, Arctic coastal communities will be subjected to the risk of HFO spills and the threat of higher levels of air pollution – so it is in the best interest of Arctic States to be swift in phasing out HFO from both domestic and international Arctic waters sooner than the regulation stipulates.

While the news from Canada was a major boost for the quest to rid the Arctic of HFO, Andrew Dumbrille, of Clean Arctic Alliance member organisation WWF Canada, joined a chorus of voices calling for Canada’s government to ensure any potential costs associated with banning HFO do not impact people in Northern communities.

“WWF-Canada commends this move to protect the marine Arctic environment as well as to ensure Arctic waters stay clean for the communities that rely on them for food, recreation and culture”, said Dumbrille.

Lisa Koperqualuk, Vice-President of Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada said that “Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada wishes to express our encouragement that a text toward restrictions on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oils in Arctic waters has been formulated. However, we remain deeply concerned about the potential negative impacts that exemptions will continue to put our communities and ways of life at risk. We will continue advocating for a full ban to protect our Indigenous communities and our environment”.

“There are concerns about the timeline for introducing the heavy fuel oil ban, and the importance of protecting and connecting our holistic life and our marine environment, which includes our land, air, sea and most importantly ice. Based on the consistent guidance of our Elders and for our future generations we are going to continue to advocate for the heavy fuel oil ban as our indigenous Arctic people have been resilient in this area since time immemorial,” said Mellisa Johnson, Executive Director of the Bering Sea Elders Group.

“I am particularly concerned about the consequences and potential impacts of continued use of HFO in the Arctic and what it will mean for my family on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait,” said Verner Wilson III, Senior Oceans Campaigner at Clean Arctic Alliance member – Friends of the Earth US, – a Siberian Yup’ik Inuit who was born and raised in Alaska. “Even if the United States strictly applies the provisions of the regulation, my community and our way of life could be unfairly damaged as a result of the actions of other Arctic States exempting their ships for a whole decade from now.”


So what is HFO?

Already banned for nearly a decade in Antarctica and in some of the waters around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, heavy fuel oil is a viscous and polluting fossil fuel that powers ships throughout our seas and oceans – accounting for 80% of marine fuel used worldwide. Around 75% of marine fuel currently carried in the Arctic is HFO. If HFO is spilled in cold polar waters, it is likely to break down very slowly, and prove almost impossible to clean up. A HFO spill would have long-term devastating effects on Arctic indigenous communities, livelihoods and the marine ecosystems they depend upon. As sea ice melts and opens up Arctic waters further, even larger non-Arctic state-flagged vessels running on HFO are likely to divert to Arctic waters in search of shorter journey times, greatly increasing the risks of HFO spills. Already four of the top five flags, based on volume of HFO on board as fuel, originate from outside of the Arctic region – Panama, Marshall Islands, Liberia, and Singapore – with Russia the Arctic nation.

Burning HFO produces black carbon particles which are emitted in the exhaust fumes. When they fall on snow, on glacier ice and sea ice, the reflectivity (albedo) is reduced and the absorption of heat increases. More Arctic shipping using HFO will lead to increased black carbon emissions, fueling an already accelerating feedback loop.

The threat from oil spills on Arctic ecosystems and livelihoods is real, as are the impacts of climate change on the Arctic, and the knock-on effects of those impacts on the rest of the planet. The Arctic is under pressure – climate change is fuelling temperature rises double the rate of further south. In early March, it was reported that ice loss from the ice caps of Greenland and the Antarctic are “tracking the worst-case scenario”, losing ice six times faster than in the 1990s. In 2019, in just two months, the loss of 600 billion tonnes of ice from Greenland raised global sea level by 2.2mm.

HFO Ban: Needed Now, More Then Ever
With a large proportion of Planet Earth’s population currently under Covid-19 lockdown, planes are grounded, cars are parked. Cessation of industrial activity has meant clear skies – less emissions and less air pollution. In the short term, this is good, particularly given the link between the effects of air pollution on human health and the impacts of Covid-19. According to Carbon Brief, the coronavirus impact on CO2 emissions is so far six times larger than 2008 financial crisis – we’re currently looking at the largest ever annual global fall in CO2 emissions – 4%.

Good air quality and lower greenhouse gas emissions provide a glimpse of the future some of us want, and all of us need. But in the midst of a global lockdown, this is not a time for blind optimism or complacency, instead it’s a moment for resetting our vision of the planet we want and go after it. There can be no return to normal. IMO member states must recognise that a melting Arctic is not normal; just as the potential risk of a HFO oil spill – coating sea ice and wildlife is not “normal”. Filthy air spewn from the smokestacks of cruise and cargo ships and entering the lungs of people going about their daily life is not normal. It’s certainly not the vision of “normality” that we should need or want.

But as many of us are toiling away in our home offices in favour of a cleaner, fairer, more equitable planet, there are many others hellbent on returning to business as usual. There’s the danger that companies worldwide will feel the need to “make up for lost time” by moving more goods faster, once restrictions loosen. This could drive a backlash of transport emissions, including from shipping, and pressure to increase shipping in the Arctic region.

On March 12, PAME, the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment working group released a report, The Increase In Arctic Shipping 2013-2019, which demonstrates a 25% increase in Arctic shipping in the last six years. The total distance sailed by all vessels increased by 75% in the Arctic Polar Code area during the same period. While much of this traffic was fishing vessels, bulk carrier traffic has increased 160%.

The volume of cargo transported along the Northern Sea Route has significantly increased in recent years, from 10.7 million tons in 2017, to 31.5 million tons in 2019.

In 2019, 29 transit vessels used the NSR completing a total of 37 voyages. Most of the transits were made by general cargo vessels, and most of the vessels were owned by Chinese company COSCO. The fastest transit was made by a refrigerated cargo ship flagged by the Bahamas.

It will certainly be bad news for the Arctic and for Arctic communities if the volume of shipping increases in the coming decade before environmental protections including a ban on the use and carriage of HFO take effect.

Right now, like everything else on the planet, the timing and methods by which the IMO will next meet remain unresolved. But one thing is certain – we can see no rationale for delaying a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, a ban that has already taken years in the making and is already a decade behind similar protection for the Antarctic.

Dave Walsh is the Communications Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance. Contact: [email protected]


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