Global Shipping Inches Forward on Heavy Fuel Oil Ban in Arctic

The International Maritime Organization started work defining which fuels would be banned and how. It also listed ideas to cut black carbon but didn't prioritize.

The UN's International Maritime Organization is responsible for measures to improve the safety and security of international shipping and to reduce pollution from ships. It has 174 member nations. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty ImagesThe UN's Internatio
The UN's International Maritime Organization is responsible for measures to improve the safety of international shipping and to reduce pollution from ships. Members discussed a heavy fuel oil ban at a meeting this week. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

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The International Maritime Organization inched forward this week on its promises to ban the use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic and reduce black carbon emissions from ships.

Meeting in London, the United Nations regulatory body’s Pollution Prevention and Response subcommittee began work on defining which fuels would be banned and how. It also came up with a list of possible measures for cutting emissions of black carbon but didn’t set priorities.

An assessment of the economic, environmental and social impacts of a ban, put in motion last year, is expected to be finished before the subcommittee’s next meeting in 2020.


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The Clean Arctic Alliance, a group of more than a dozen environmental organizations, issued a statement that said it “welcomes the progress” but noted that much work still must be done if the ban is to be phased in between 2021 and 2023.

Heavy fuel oil, a particularly dirty form of oil, poses a significant environmental hazard if spilled. It also emits high levels of black carbon, a short-lived climate pollutant that also affects human health.  

Maersk, Others Already Cutting Emissions

Some shipping companies and cruise ship operators have already begun to move on efforts to reduce air pollution and transition away from fossil fuels.

French cruise ship operator Ponant announced that it has stopped using heavy fuel oil on all voyages as of January 1. The company also said it has already exceeded the requirements of an anticipated IMO regulation that will reduce the sulfur content allowed in fuel oil used in ships, a reduction that is scheduled to take effect in 2020.

Danish shipping giant Maersk also announced new details Thursday about its plan to achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions for its fleet by 2050. The company said in its annual sustainability report that it has already achieved a 47 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions relative to the amount of cargo shipped by the company since 2007.

“Efficiency gains do not, however, solve the climate change problem,” company officials stated. “That can only be achieved through decarbonisation.”

The Maersk report singles out advanced biofuels and hydrogen-based fuels as potential fossil fuel replacements that would get the company to net zero emissions and stresses that they must work quickly to reach their 2050 goal.

“Given the 20-25-year lifetime of a vessel, we must have the first zero-carbon and commercially viable vessel on the seas by 2030,” the report states. “This leaves us and the industry only eleven years to find the right solutions for a positive business case for decarbonisation.”

Who Supports It and Who’s Pushing Back?

The heavy fuel oil ban is supported by Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and the United States, and environmental advocates hope it will be adopted by the IMO in 2021 and phased in by 2023.

Russia and Canada, two Arctic nations whose ships burn the most heavy fuel oil, have yet to get behind the ban, with Russia recommending alternative measures for the IMO to reduce the risk of spills in the Arctic.

“Canada is still hemming and hawing about it, Russia is kind of negative, but they are not stamping their feet and saying ‘no, no, no,’” said John Maggs, president of the Clean Shipping Coalition, who attended the IMO meeting.

This week’s meeting generated a list of approximately 20 measures to reduce the black carbon pollution from ships worldwide but did not prioritize the measures as environmental advocates had hoped.

“The positive is we now we have a list, we have options,” Faig Abbasov, a shipping officer with the environmental advocacy group Transport & Environment, said. “The negative is it’s too long, it’s physically impossible for the IMO or any other institution to actually implement 20 measures.”

IMO members will work on paring down the list at a different IMO subcommittee meeting in May.

Last year, the IMO called for at least a 50 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While Maersk’s emissions reduction target is more ambitious than the IMO’s, neither the organization’s target nor the company’s goal is binding.

“Aspiration is one thing, delivering it is another,” Abbasov said. Maersk might have second thoughts in the future if IMO or other companies do not follow.”