Arctic shipping in the spotlight

Arctic shipping in the spotlight

Dr Sian Prior, lead advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, writes exclusively today for Splash on what is set to be a revelatory day for the future of the world’s polar regions.

Published today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) is the agreed global assessment of the impact of climate change on the ocean and the cryosphere (the planet’s icy environments).

The report delivers some shocking revelations; the global ocean has been absorbing huge emissions for over three decades.

Even at the current one degree of global warming, centuries of heating, acidification, and lower oxygen levels are already locked into the ocean. Feedback loops are being triggered – methane and carbon release from melting permafrost and extra heating due to the loss of polar sea ice.

This is not a maybe or a could be. This is a fact. The world’s glaciers, poles and ocean will continue to change, to break-down from the states that we know, over the coming decades and centuries as they respond to the warming that has already been caused. The world has changed and continues to change, and we will have to adapt – including the shipping sector.

Yet, governments and industry are so slow to take any action – even action that is possible today takes years to negotiate.

The Clean Arctic Alliance has been campaigning for three years to ban the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Arctic. Switching away from heavy fuel oil use is not difficult. Many ships in the Arctic already use lighter fuels, and most of those that continue to use HFO use a combination of lighter fuels when in coastal waters of Europe or North America and the heavier fuels only when they are further offshore and in the Arctic. Yet, it is in the Arctic that the use of HFO presents the greatest risk. Using HFO in the Arctic – that is, burning it – results in emissions of black carbon, a climate forcer, which speeds up melting when it settles onto the snow and ice. Carrying HFO as bunker fuel while navigating the Arctic presents a spill risk. Virtually impossible to clean-up, a HFO spill in Arctic waters would persist for months and possibly years, having a devastating impact on the wildlife and local communities.

Banning HFO use in the Arctic would immediately reduce black carbon emissions from those ships by around one-third, and the use of lighter fuels would allow the installation of diesel particulate filters which will reduce black carbon emissions by over 90%. A ban on HFO in the Arctic would immediately remove the risks associated with a HFO spill. Switching to distillate fuels or renewable forms of propulsion could and should be done immediately – not in three or five or ten years time.

The SROCC is a further warning that we are past the time for debate and prevarication, we are overdue time for action. Actions that are possible today, must be undertaken today. For shipping in the Arctic that means:

  • An IMO ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic
  • Reduce black carbon emissions from shipping
  • Move to alternative and renewable methods of propulsion!

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