UN shipping body approves Arctic heavy fuel oil ‘ban’, delayed for a decade

Campaigners describe ban as “meaningless”, as concessions to Russia allow most ships to continue using heavy fuel oil in the sensitive polar region until 2029

With sea ice in retreat, the Arctic is opening up to shipping and exploitation (Pic: Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard)

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Ships will be banned from burning or using heavy fuel oil (HFO) in Arctic waters under a newly agreed regulation, but with loopholes giving most polluters a pass until 2029. 

Countries approved the proposal during an environmental committee meeting of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) – the UN body responsible for international shipping – on Friday.

The decision came several days after countries attending the IMO meeting agreed to a controversial package of energy efficiency measures. Campaigners say both measures fall far short of both the IMO and Paris Agreement goals to reduce emissions and limit global warming.

Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the US proposed the ban to protect the fragile Arctic region from oil spills.

HFO has been banned in Antarctic waters since 2011, but plans for similar restrictions in the Arctic have been met with resistance, mainly from Russia. Opponents inserted a host of exemptions and waivers that weakened the rule.

“What was approved today allows ships to continue using HFO in the Arctic until July 2029,” Bryan Comer, senior marine researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), told Climate Home News.

“Unfortunately IMO member states decided to delay implementation until July 2024, and to forge ahead with a regulation that actually guarantees that ships can use HFO in the Arctic for the rest of the decade, rather than banning it,” said Comer.

Russia resists tougher climate targets in dash for Arctic gas

If the newly approved ban had been in place in 2019, around 75% of ships running on HFO would have been allowed to continue using the fuel in the Arctic, according to a study published by the ICCT in September.

Between 2015-2019, HFO use increased by 75%, according to the ICCT study. If the fleet continues to grow, the numbers of oil tankers and bulk carriers that qualify for an exemption would increase “and the effectiveness of the ban would be further eroded,” Comer and his co-authors warned. 

“The IMO have chosen to kick the can 10 years down the road,” John Maggs, president of the Clean Shipping Coalition and senior policy advisor at Seas at Risk, told Climate Home. 

“They are good at creating the impression that they are doing something, but when you look closely, you discover that it is not going to change for years,” he said. 

In a speech to meeting attendees, Maggs stressed that it was misleading to refer to the new policy as a ban.

“It will inevitably cause widespread confusion, with the wider world assuming that a ‘ban’ stops HFO being used in the Arctic when actually in the mouth of the IMO it only means a modest and likely temporary reduction in its use for the first ten years,” he said. 

Anger as UN body approves deal that allows ship emissions to rise to 2030

“There are so many caveats in the ban, it is basically meaningless,” Dr Sian Prior, lead advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, which campaigns to ban HFO in the Arctic, told Climate Home News. 

All ships with a protected fuel tank located inside the double hull are automatically exempt and any bearing the flag of one of the five Arctic coastal states can apply for a waiver, Prior said.

In a concession to Russia, the IMO allowed Arctic coastal nations to apply for a waiver when operating in their own waters. Russia argued that a complete ban would “negatively impact the local communities and industries of the region” who rely on ships to receive food, fuel and goods. In 2019, 366 ships would have been eligible for a waiver, including 325 bearing Russian flags, according to the ICCT.

The regulation does not include any concrete measures to tackle black carbon pollution, said Prior. When burned, HFO emits black carbon – a pollutant that absorbs sunlight and traps heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. It will only lead to a 5% reduction in black carbon emissions, according to the ICCT study. 

Oil spills pose another serious environmental concern. If HFO ends up in the water, it is extremely difficult to clean up. “HFO is very heavy and forms an emulsion in water – you end up with 10 times the volume,” said Prior. 

“The IMO is treading water: delaying action will not make the climate emergency magically disappear,” said Greenpeace oceans campaigner Veronica Frank. “In a year where a global pandemic made us question our relationship with the natural world and a massive oil spill has turned into the worst environmental disaster in Mauritius, what further evidence does the International Maritime Organisation need to move the shipping sector away from fossil fuels?”

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