UN resolution calling on ships to use cleaner fuel in Arctic a good first step to cut emissions, experts say

The United Nations’ International Maritime Organization has adopted a voluntary measure calling for the use of cleaner fuels by ships operating in the Arctic to encourage the reduction of black carbon emissions from shipping in the region.

United Nations organization adopts voluntary measure with impacts for black carbon emissions in Arctic

Arctic shipping is a source of black carbon, contributing to ice and snow melting and warming of the Arctic. This photo of sea ice on the Wandel Sea north of Greenland was taken Aug. 16, 2020. Sea ice concentration in Arctic waters is decreasing, which makes shipping more viable. (Felix Linhardt/Kiel University)

A United Nations resolution urging ship operators to move to cleaner fuels when travelling through Arctic waters is being hailed by scientists, environmentalists and an Inuit group for its potential to significantly lower black carbon emissions in the region.

Black carbon emissions — fine particles that exist through the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels — are an emerging and growing problem in the Arctic, according to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, the science arm of the Arctic Council.

Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo, said while the effects of black carbon are significant, if emissions "can be brought under control, if we can reduce or reduce as much as possible, it's going to have a big and immediate effect."

The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental group that tackles issues like environmental protection in the Arctic, found shipping in the Arctic has increased by 25 per cent over the last nine years, partly because it has become more viable as a result of melting ice, said Andrew Dumbrille, lead specialist of marine shipping and conservation at the World Wildlife Fund-Canada.

Melting effect

Black carbon lands on snow and ice when a ship passes through, said Meier. This affects the albedo, the whiteness of the surface, so the sun is absorbed, causing the snow and ice to melt, he said.

Accelerated melting of ice and snow is already a problem because of greenhouse gases and global warming, and black carbon makes a problem that's already happening even worse, he said.

Scientists say melting ice and snow as a result of climate change was already a problem in the Arctic, but black carbon emissions are accelerating this. A photo taken in Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on July 31, 2019 shows Arctic sea ice levels are low. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Black carbon has an effect like a greenhouse gas, said Dumbrille.

While particles landing is a concern, local temperature warming in the air around an emission source is also a problem, said Dumbrille.

Climate change is being more acutely felt in the Arctic, where warming happens two to three times faster than the global average, said Meier, and regulation hasn't caught up.

"If anything, we need more stringent regulations in the Arctic than we do in the mid-latitudes, because it's a more sensitive environment," said Meier.

"There are currently lower emission standards for ships to travel in the Arctic than there are for when ships travel through the southern waters of Canada."

'Good first step'

The resolution that the United Nations' International Maritime Organization adopted last week is "a good first step in decarbonization," said Dumbrille, a sentiment echoed by others.

It is a voluntary call to have ships switch to lighter, cleaner fuels instead of residual fuels many ships are currently burning, which are heavier and produce more black carbon.

Paul Blomerus, executive director of Clear Seas, an independent not-for-profit research centre that supports safe and sustainable marine shipping in Canada, said just because it's voluntary doesn't mean the move should be dismissed.

"Most pollution control measures started out as voluntary protection measures," said Blomerus. "It's the indication of a start of a process that will lead to meaningful reductions."

The costs

The switch will come at a financial cost and that will be borne by someone, said Blomerus.

Clear Seas, in partnership with Canadian Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance and Vard Marine, a marine engineering company with Canadian operations, has conducted an Arctic Marine Natural Gas Feasibility Study that found that switching  fuels could cost more than 40 per cent more.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) has actively been fighting for action on the issue.

"We depend on the snow, ice coast and marine ecosystem for our transportation and food security," said Lisa Koperqualuk, vice-president international of the ICC.

While Inuit communities are dependent on the Arctic shipping fleet for their re-supply, they want to see their Arctic environment, sea, ice and coasts protected and are very concerned about the effects of black carbon causing the ice to melt, she said.

The council recognizes there is some cost involved in switching fuels.

"We have asked for and supported a transition fund to be established by the government to offset costs borne by industry," said Koperqualuk, adding, "communities must not bear the cost of environmental protection."

Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., said that if ships that travel through the Arctic switched to fuels that produce less black carbon, it would have an immediate and significant impact. (Submitted by Walt Meier)

Sau Sau Liu, senior communications adviser for Transport Canada, told CBC News the federal government will continue to subsidize the cost of goods shipped to northern communities through various programs that address the cost of living and food security impacts in Canada's northern communities.

What happens next

Unlike other environmental harms, black carbon and its effects are "pretty easily reversible," said Meier. 

The ships already in use can switch the type of fuel they use overnight, said Blomerus.

Black carbon accounts for one-fifth of the shipping industry's global climate impact, said Dumbrille.

On average, a ship changing from a residual to a cleaner distillate fuel will trigger about a 44 per cent decrease in black carbon emissions, but the difference could be as high as 80 per cent, he said.

Canada is looking to implement a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters by July 2024, said Liu.


Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. Her investigative work following the Nova Scotia Mass Shooting was a finalist for a CAJ Award. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.