Arctic & Antarctica
An oil tanker and an ice breaker in northern Canada. Fiona Paton / Flickr

ARC - Loopholes in Arctic Heavy Fuel Oil Ban Defer Action to the End of the Decade

In concessions to Russia, the International Maritime Organisation has watered down draft rules to protect the Arctic from oil spills and black carbon pollution

A proposal to curb ship pollution in the Arctic, weakened to suit Russian interests, would delay meaningful action until the end of the decade, researchers have found.

Under draft plans being negotiated at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) – the UN body responsible for international shipping – restrictions on heavy fuel oil (HFO), a dirty fuel which propels most of marine transport, would come into effect in July 2024.

But a host of exemptions and waivers would allow most ships using and carrying HFO to continue to pollute Arctic waters until 2029.

“That is much too long to wait to take action to protect the Arctic,” Bryan Comer, senior marine research at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), told Climate Home News.

In a study published on Thursday by ICCT, Comer and his co-authors estimated that if the draft ban had been in place in 2019, around three-quarters of the fleet using HFO would have still been allowed to carry and use the fuel in the Arctic.

As the Arctic fleet grows, so will the number of ships that qualify for an exemption, “and the effectiveness of the ban would be further eroded,” the study’s authors warned.

For the Clean Arctic Alliance, which campaigns to ban HFO use in the Arctic, the proposal will allow “business as usual for most shipping operators in the region, and could fuel a race towards lower safety standards”.

When burned, HFO emits black carbon, a short-lived pollutant that absorbs sunlight and traps heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. The Arctic, which is already warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, is particularly sensitive to these emissions.

Burning and carrying HFO has been banned in Antarctic waters since 2011, but plans for similar restrictions in the resource-rich Arctic have met with resistance. Russia, which could benefit from the opening of more shipping routes in the region as Arctic sea ice melts, is one of the most vocal opponents.

In the absence of regulation, HFO use in the Arctic is rapidly increasing. Between 2015 and 2019, its use by oil tankers rocketed by 300%, according to the ICCT.

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