By 2020, new rules will push Arctic shipowners to use cleaner fuel
"Lower global sulphur limit will have a significant beneficial impact on the environment and on human health"
In 2020, Arctic shipping should become a little cleaner following decisions made last week at a meeting of the International Marine Organization, the United Nations agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution.
It’s not the ban on heavy fuel oil, or HFO, that many continue to call for, although a spokesperson from HFO-Free Arctic organization told Nunatsiaq News that “it’s a good thing—as it means ships in the Arctic will be using a lighter fuel.”
At its recent meeting in London, the IMO reaffirmed its earlier commitment to cut the sulphur level in marine fuel from 3.5 per cent to 0.5 cent on Jan.1, 2020, in a move intended to force shipowners to switch from burning polluting HFO to cleaner, but more costly, fuel alternatives.
In 2020, other shipowners are likely to wean themselves off HFO unless they are ready to invest in emissions-cleaning scrubber equipment to be installed on each vessel, delegates to the IMO meeting decided Feb. 9.
If this additional measure requiring that equipment is approved when the IMO meets again this April, it will come into force in March 2020.
While shipping watchdog organizations were generally pleased with the IMO’s commitments, they also had some concerns.
Sian Prior, an advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, said she anticipated that the sulphur ban would reduce the amount of HFO carried anywhere—including the Arctic.
“But it won’t eliminate it,” she said.
That’s because there are low-sulphur heavy fuel oils.
“It is likely that many ships will choose to use blends once the sulphur cap comes into effect, and blends will involve blending heavy fuel with lighter fuels to reach the required sulphur content,” she said in a statement on Monday, Feb. 12. “So it’s not really a step towards banning HFO but is likely to reduce the quantities being carried.”
Most vessels in the Canadian Arctic still run on HFO, although Mia Desgagnés, the Groupe Desgagnés Inc.’s newest tanker, is capable of running off three types of fuel: HFO, distillate fuel and liquefied natural gas.
Shipping companies in Nunavut have already said there is a cost to cleaning up fuel—which clients will end up absorbing.
There is agreement that sulphur is a pollutant that can lead to many harmful health effects, such as asthma and heart disease.
“The lower global sulphur limit will have a significant beneficial impact on the environment and on human health, particularly that of people living in port cities and coastal communities,” IMO’s Secretary General, Kitack Lim, said as the recent IMO meeting opened.
And sulphur isn’t the only problem with marine fuel.
Even low-sulphur heavy fuel oil remains sludgy and if it ever spilled in icy waters, HFO would be difficult, if not impossible, to clean up.
As well, the soot, or black carbon, generated from dirty shipping exhaust is also believed to contribute to warming in the Arctic.
Though black carbon does not stay in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide, it’s considered to be a short-term climate change forcer.
Researchers have estimated that in the Arctic, black carbon magnifies warming by between 10 and 100 times more than in other regions when it falls on ice and snow, magnifying heat like a black T-shirt on a sunny day.
Because of this, black carbon is believed to be responsible for at least 30 per cent of warming in the Arctic.
The IMO said it plans to continue to look at how to calculate these black carbon emissions from shipping fuel, although the Clean Arctic Alliance said it remains “disappointed with the lack of commitment to start discussions of measures for dealing with its impacts on the Arctic.”
Research has shown that reducing soot emissions could cool down the Arctic faster and more economically than any other quick fix.
But a new study, published last week in the journal Nature, points out that sulphur fuels also have a cooling effect and that using low-sulphur fuels could contribute to a three-per-cent increase in current estimates of man-made climate change.
When Canada recently announced its updated Arctic shipping rules, Ottawa still allowed ships to use cheap and dirty fuel, but Transport Canada admitted the new regulations were “non-exhaustive in their treatment of other potential safety and environmental concerns facing the Arctic” in advance of the IMO’s global measures.