The International Maritime Organization’s proposed ban on heavy fuel oil (HFO) in Arctic waters from 2024 would lessen black carbon emissions by only 5%, rather than the 30% reduction a full ban without waivers and exemptions would achieve, according to a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). The study highlighted several loopholes in the proposal that may enable 74% of HFO-polluting ships to continue operations. The ICCT added that restricting current waivers for vessels could decrease emissions by 22%, and the IMO should reconsider excusing double-hulled ships deemed at less risk of causing oil spills.
Why does this matter? Black carbon emissions – or soot – associated with heavy fuel oil use in shipping are particularly damaging to the Arctic environment. The emissions have a pronounced effect on Arctic warming through atmospheric heat absorption, and they also settle on and act to darken snow and ice – resulting in enhanced local warming through the albedo effect.
Worryingly, the shipping industry’s moves to tackle sulphur emissions as a result of the IMO’s 2020 low-sulphur standard could act to exacerbate the black carbon problem. Hybrid very-low sulphur fuel oils (VLSFOs) have been shown to emit up to 85% more black carbon than standard HFOs. This problem becomes worse when ships are running at less than full power – which will be the case when navigating sea ice.
On top of this issue, an HFO spill in the Arctic would be particularly damaging due to the viscous nature of the fuel interacting with the delicate and cold nature of the Arctic ecosystem, with sea ice hindering any clean-up efforts. Analysis has shown more ships are now navigating through Arctic waters as sea ice recedes due to climate change, with shipping traffic along the Siberian Coast expanding 58% between 2016 and 2019. The ICCT says HFO use in the Arctic grew 300% between 2015 and 2019.
HFO’s use has been banned in Antarctic waters since 2011. Arctic countries have committed to tackle the problem, setting targets in 2017 to reduce black carbon emissions by up to 33% on 2013 levels by 2025. The IMO has now agreed draft plans to “ban” HFO in the Arctic by 2024, but the ICCT’s study shows that if the ban was implemented in 2019 in its current form, 74% of HFO fleets would be allowed to continue to use the fuel, resulting in an only 5% reduction in black carbon emissions.
ICCT is pushing for the IMO to bolster these plans when it convenes virtually in November.
A further thought – While efforts to tackle sulphur emissions in the shipping industry may have a detrimental effect on black carbon emissions, longer-term plans to decarbonise shipping could help to address the problem. Shipbuilders and operators are looking at electrification, using fuel cells and also switching ships to run on LNG and, longer-term, methanol and ammonia as part of efforts to meet the IMO’s 2050 goal of halving shipping greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.