ILast February, Russian gas tanker Christophe de Margerie made history by sailing in the icy waters of the northern sea route in mid-winter. The pioneering voyage from Jiangsu in China to a remote Arctic port in Siberia has been heralded as the beginning of a new era that could change global shipping routes – reducing travel time between Europe and Asia by more than a third.
This was made possible by the climate crisis. Shrinking polar ice has allowed Arctic shipping traffic to grow by 25% between 2013 and 2019, and growth is expected to continue.
But Arctic shipping is not only made possible by the climate crisis, but also contributes to it. More ships means an increase in exhaust gases, which is accelerating the melting of ice in this sensitive region due to a complex phenomenon involving ‘black carbon’, an air pollutant created by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels.
When black carbon or soot gets on snow and ice, it drastically accelerates melting. Dark snow and ice, absorbing more energy, melt much faster than heat-reflecting white snow, creating a vicious circle of faster warming.
Environmentalists warn that the Arctic, which is warming four times faster than the world average, saw an 85% increase in black carbon from ships between 2015 and 2019, mainly due to an increase in oil tankers and bulk carriers.
Particles that exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular disease in cities are short-term but powerful climatic agents: it is estimated that they account for more than 20% of the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions from ships.
But unlike other transport sectors, including roads, railways and inland waterways, where air quality standards limit emissions, there are no provisions for shipping. Last November, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted a resolution on the use of cleaner Arctic fuels to reduce black carbon, but left it as a voluntary move.
Last week, the IMO was in the spotlight again. A coalition of environmental groups warned a meeting of its subcommittee on pollution, prevention and response that its resolution had done too little to tackle the Arctic climate crisis. They presented a document calling on governments to adopt binding regulations to reduce black carbon emissions from shipping in the region.
“We are reaching this cascading turning point in the climate,” said Dr Lucy Gilliam, senior shipping policy officer at Seas at Risk. “With the IPCC report, we see again why we need to do something urgently about black carbon.
Last Monday, scientists from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that action was needed “now or never” to prevent climate destruction. They concluded that the international community was not fulfilling its obligations with regard to climate change, but called on the shipping sector and the IMO to be particularly critical.
Pollution from global shipping has increased by 4.9% in 2021, according to a report by shipping brokers Simpson Spence Young.
“IMO member states need to agree on ambitious and urgent global action to drastically reduce black carbon emissions from ships this decade to alleviate the Arctic climate crisis,” said Dr Sian Pryor, the Alliance’s lead adviser. for a clean Arctic, a coalition of 21 non-profit groups that lobby governments to protect wildlife and people in the Arctic. She called on countries and regions to play their part by taking immediate action to reduce ships’ black carbon.
If all shipping in Arctic fuel oil switches to cleaner distillate fuel, it will reduce their black carbon emissions by 44%, the Alliance said. Heavy fuel oil or bunker fuel is a viscous, low-quality, cheap oil contaminated with substances, including nitrogen and sulfur, that make it more polluting than distillate.
If all ships also install diesel particulate filters that reduce emissions by capturing and storing soot, black carbon can be reduced by another 90%.
However, others argue that the IMO’s 2021 ban on heavy fuel in the Arctic – a move aimed at reducing the risk of spillage and expected to take effect in 2029 – will reduce black carbon.
“The tide is already floating in the same direction,” said Paul Blomerus, director of Clear Seas: Center for Responsible Maritime Navigation, an independent research institute in Canada funded by industry and government. “Many Canadian-flagged ships are moving to distillate fuels before the IMO ban, which will have the added effect of reducing black carbon emissions.
“You can say that the IMO has only a certain bandwidth and we need to focus on decarbonisation and how to get to zero by 2050.”
He also noted the great role that Russia plays in Arctic shipping. “Whether they will comply with IMO regulations, everyone can guess in the current circumstances,” he said.