Heavy fuel oil has no place in Arctic shipping

Indigenous people demand phase-out of harmful marine pollutants at IMO talks

Icebreakers in the Arctic continue to use the most harmful marine fuels that cause air pollution and accelerate global warming (Image: Wikimedia)

 

For hundreds of years, national and international policies have shaped the Arctic in everything from territorial laws, to statehood, to whaling and furs.

But as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) meets in London (October 22-26) policymakers have another issue to address: a dramatically warmer Arctic climate where sea ice is declining, even in the middle of winter.

This loss of Arctic sea ice is opening the region up to an increase in shipping. This may be good for trade but it could be catastrophic for the environment.

Nearly ten years ago, the Arctic Council (an intergovernmental forum to promote cooperation between Arctic states) identified an oil spill from shipping as the greatest threat to the region when it published its first Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment. To improve Arctic shipping rules, in December 2016 the United States and Canada announced a “phase down” of the dirtiest marine fuels, known as heavy fuel oil (HFO), from use in vessels operating in the Arctic.

This was followed by a formal request to the IMO by seven governments, including Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway and the US, in March 2017 for the Marine Environment Protection Committee’s work programme to include the development of measures to reduce the risks of use and carriage of HFO as fuel by ships in Arctic waters.

The sea is the lifeblood for Arctic people, providing us with food, clothing and our very culture

During discussions at the IMO, the request was supported by the remaining Arctic nations, Denmark, Sweden and Russia and a number of other countries also concerned about the need to protect Arctic wildlife, resources and its people.

Heavy fuel oil is a dirty and polluting fossil fuel that powers ships all over the world. It poses a problem for the marine environment and climate wherever it’s used, but if it were spilled in the cold waters of the Arctic, it would break down even more slowly and would have long term, devastating effects on both our livelihoods and ecosystems.

HFO is also the source of harmful and significantly higher emissions of air pollutants, including sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, and black carbon. When emitted and deposited on Arctic snow or ice, the climate warming effect of black carbon is at least three times greater than when emitted over open ocean.

The sea is the lifeblood for Arctic people, providing us with food, clothing and our very culture. As the ice melts, more ships will be able to pass through areas that are important for the species we depend on for our livelihoods.

The Arctic voice needs to be heard

 

As the Arctic’s first responders, the risk of a HFO spill is of deep concern. Equipment to handle such a spill is stationed thousands of kilometres away from rural Nunavut’s shores and would still likely be inadequate. For the people of Nunavut, it is within our common interest to keep the Arctic environment as clean as possible. A phase out of HFO will reduce the risks to our livelihoods and way of life.

While attending a meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee in London two years ago, I joined a delegation of Arctic indigenous leaders to discuss with IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim our concerns about maritime safety and the environmental impact of shipping on Arctic communities. During our conversation, we raised the issue of HFO as well as the need for permanent representation of indigenous communities at the IMO.

On the final day of the meeting, secretary-general Lim, along with several Arctic nations, stated their concerns regarding heavy fuel oil, and the need for further consideration of the risks it poses.

Momentum towards a phase out of HFO is building. In January 2017, the Arctic Commitment was launched during the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway, bringing together organisations, communities, corporations and tourism operators to demand that the IMO phase out the use of HFO, and urge the shipping industry to switch to higher quality, alternative fuels, before such a ban is in place.

Signed by over 100 bodies and individuals representing a wide range of Arctic interests – shipping companies, ports, shippers, indigenous groups, tourism bodies, explorers, and photographers to name a few – the Arctic Commitment is a good indication of the strength and depth of support for a ban on HFO.

Also in 2017, to start the process of developing measures to reduce the risks associated with HFO use in Arctic waters, IMO members were invited to submit concrete proposals for consideration. Eight members – Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United States – brought forward a proposal to ban its use and carriage as fuel by ships operating in the Arctic. The proposal was supported by many more IMO member countries during the discussions, although for some it was contingent on assessing the economic impact for communities, as well as the environmental benefits.

Two years on from my first trip to the IMO, and the first meeting of Arctic indigenous leaders with the IMO secretary-general, it is time for the IMO to take the next steps towards ridding the region of HFO. It has an opportunity to do so this month. At the next gathering in London, IMO member states must commence the work required in order for a ban on the use and carriage of HFO as fuel by ships operating in the Arctic to be adopted.

The Arctic voice needs to be heard when it comes to reducing impacts of shipping in our communities. Whether that’s here at home or internationally at the IMO. It’s time the rules for shipping reflect the risks it poses to Inuit livelihoods and hunting.

The world’s dirtiest shipping fuel has to be phased out in the Arctic, our territory needs to be protected and the health of the sea maintained for future generations.