A decade after the Arctic Council first identified oil spills as Arctic shipping’s greatest risk, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) finally agreed to a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (HFO). It is set to be formally adopted by the IMO in June 2021.

Already banned in Antarctica and in some of the waters around the Svalbard archipelago north of Norway, HFO is a viscous and polluting fossil fuel that powers ships throughout our waterways. On the face of it, this ban appears to be a good thing because a solid and a timely ban would protect the Arctic environment, and the communities that depend on it, from the risks due to increased shipping in the region.

But this purported ban is weak, and will not result in meaningful changes. In fact, the proposed ban as it is written could increase the risk of an HFO spill in the region. According to a recent analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), the approved regulation will reduce the use of HFO in the Arctic by just 16 per cent and the carriage of HFO as fuel by only 30 per cent when it finally does take effect.

Between July 2024 and July 2029, the amount of HFO used and carried in the Arctic is likely to increase as shipping in the Arctic increases, and as newer ships replace older vessels, as others are able to take advantage of exemptions or change flags that would allow them to seek exemptions and waivers.

Around 75 per cent of marine fuel carried in the Arctic is HFO. If that is spilled in cold polar waters, it is likely to break down very slowly, and prove almost impossible to clean up with the costs of response and attempts at clean-up running into millions of dollars. But the costs are not only financial. An HFO spill would have long-term devastating effects on Arctic Indigenous communities, local livelihoods and the marine ecosystems they depend upon.

Ships burning HFO produce black carbon particles, commonly known as soot, which are emitted in the exhaust fumes. This short-lived, high-impact pollutant heats the atmosphere when emitted, and when it falls on snow, on glacier ice and sea ice, the reflectivity – the measure of how much light that hits a surface is reflected without being absorbed – is reduced and the absorption of heat increases.

This increases the rate of sea ice loss in a region that is already warming at twice the rate of non-polar regions, which in turn impacts the rest of the global climate. Black carbon emissions from shipping have already increased by 85 per cent between 2015 and 2019, and more Arctic shipping using HFO will lead to increased black carbon emissions, fuelling an already accelerating feedback loop.

Recent Arctic Council studies of ship activity in the Arctic have shown an increase of 25 per cent between 2013-2019 and a 75 per cent increase in the distance travelled as vessel operators take advantage of the increasingly open polar waters in a rapidly melting Arctic.

In Canada, a study by the University of Ottawa showed Arctic marine traffic increased dramatically over the past three decades, with total distance travelled by all vessels tripling. The U.S. Committee on Marine Transportation (CMTS) estimates that between 2020 and 2030, ship traffic in the U.S. maritime Arctic will grow 200 per cent from 2008 levels. The continued increase in shipping will result in related increases in emissions of black carbon, further accelerating heating of the Arctic.

A changing Arctic climate has untold consequences not only for the people who live there, but everyone further south too because as global temperatures increase, weather patterns are disrupted and sea levels rise.

In June, temperatures north of the Arctic Circle  soared to 38oC, the highest temperature ever recorded there, while Arctic sea ice to the north of Alaska and in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas were recorded at its lowest extent ever for the month of July. For the first time, the Northern Sea Route – the shipping route along the Russian Federation’s Arctic coast – opened in July.

In August, new research showed that Arctic sea ice was melting faster than climate models had so far predicted, and that the Greenland ice sheet melt had accelerated further since 2016, contributing to rising sea levels globally, with particular impacts along the northeastern North American coastline.

The recent cold weather that blanketed North America and Europe and caused chaos in places like Texas has been linked to the consequences of a warming Arctic. The polar vortex, a low-pressure area that spins over the pole during winter, was interfered with by the jet stream – strong winds that encircle the planet – which is itself being shifted by Arctic warming.

The IMO is on the cusp of missing a crucial opportunity to protect the Arctic – it has a last chance this June when the Arctic HFO ban is due to be adopted. IMO member states – particularly the Arctic nations – must stand up for the Arctic and its people and its wildlife by taking action to strengthen the Arctic HFO ban ahead of its adoption, and bring it into effect sooner than 2029.

Canada and the U.S. must take rapid action by banning HFO use and carriage in their own Arctic waters ahead of the IMO’s regulation. Norway is already leading the way by consulting on an extension to an existing limited ban on HFO. The new measure would eliminate all HFO use and carriage on ships from the Arctic waters off Svalbard.

In December 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau and then-president Obama jointly announced a “phase-down” of heavy fuel oil in their Arctic waters. For four years, that ambition was on hiatus, but now under President Biden, the U.S. has rediscovered its interest in action on climate change and environmental degradation.

On Feb. 26.  the “Joint Statement by Transport Canada and the U.S. Department of Transportation on the Nexus between transportation and climate change” was issued. Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg underlined their dedication “to working with the IMO to effectively implement the ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (HFO) as fuel in the Arctic.” The U.S. and Canada must follow Norway’s example, and move faster and more effectively than the IMO, by now banning HFO from their own Arctic waters.

While the benefits of a robust and a timely ban would extend south and around the world, so too will the consequences if poor policy is left in place. The Arctic is counting on our nations to do the right thing and protect it.

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Anna Barford
Anna Barford (she/her) is the Canada shipping campaigner with Stand.earth. She grew up in the traditional, ancestral and unceded Coast Salish territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples, known as Vancouver, where she lives now with her partner and dog. Her work focuses on dumping from vessels and the environmental impact of the shipping industry under Canada's jurisdiction.
James Gamble
James Gamble is Arctic program director with Pacific Environment.

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