Killing three birds with one stone in the Arctic

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The Polar Code did not address the use of heavy fuel oil by ships in the Arctic. [NOAA's National Ocean Service/Flickr]

The use of heavy fuel oil by shipping in the Arctic could have disastrous consequences. Banning this fuel would protect the region’s rich wildlife, improve human health and benefit the climate, writes Sue Libenson.

Sue Libenson is senior Arctic policy officer for Pacific Environment, an international environmental group that has partnered with local and indigenous communities in Russia, China,  and the Alaskan Arctic for more than two decades.

We’ve all heard the expression, “killing two birds with one stone”.  For those of us who live in the Arctic, this is a way of life. We have long traditions of being highly efficient in order to survive in extreme conditions. By necessity, we make every action count for several times its worth.

Today, the Arctic faces modern challenges. The region is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet; Arctic sea ice is melting, seasons are shifting, and changes mean many of our ways of life hang in the balance.

But even though most of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change come from outside the Arctic Circle, we in the Arctic are in a special position to slow or reverse these changes.

Requiring ships in the Arctic to use cleaner fuels will reduce black carbon emissions in the Arctic where it really counts, cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the risk of a disastrous oil spill. In fact, the potential is so great that we might need to coin a new expression to cover it: “killing three birds with one stone”.

One of climate change’s most dangerous transformations is the advent of shipping in Arctic waters. Seas that were virtually impassable in recent times are changing rapidly. The Arctic Ocean may see ice-free summers by 2030. New arctic shipping lanes are attracting cargo transporters, tankers and cruise ships. For seafarers, the Arctic remains remote, dangerous, and severe. Substantial oil spill response teams or search and rescue crews can be thousands of miles and weeks away. 

Arctic waters include some of the world’s most productive ocean ecosystems. Many of the world’s largest seabird colonies and most of the world’s populations of several whales, seals, and walruses migrate, breed and feed here. Some of the world’s highest volume fisheries rely on the incredibly productive arctic waters. Indigenous peoples across the Arctic continue to practice traditional ways of life closely connected to the waters on which they rely for food. 

The greatest identified threat from shipping to this extraordinary Arctic world is a catastrophic spill of heavy fuel oil.

Heavy fuel oil (HFO) – thicker and dirtier than lighter grades – is both shipped as cargo and used as engine fuel. Because it does not evaporate, heavy fuel oil in Arctic conditions would be virtually impossible to clean up. A spill in open water, where arctic birds, fish, and wildlife concentrate, could lead to ecosystem collapse. 

For these reasons, HFO was banned in Antarctic waters in 2010. It should be kept out of Arctic waters too.

Arctic ship traffic will also dramatically increase regional air emissions, including black carbon associated with HFO. Black carbon not only impacts human health, in the Arctic it also accelerates ice melt and climate change when black soot lands on arctic ice. A shift to cleaner fuels would reduce black carbon emissions. Cleaner fuels also tend towards lower greenhouse gas emissions, the core of climate change solutions.

As nations race to gain shipping advantage, there is an immediate need for common sense steps to safeguard the fragile Arctic marine environment and the communities who depend on it.  

Fortunately, there is an opportunity for action next week when the Arctic Council meets in Stockholm, Sweden, to discuss protecting the arctic marine environment. 

The Arctic Council had already identified heavy fuel oil as the primary threat associated with shipping as far back as 2009, but the fuel remains unregulated. Mixed progress was made last year when the United Nations’ International Maritime Organisation approved the Polar Code, the first enforceable framework governing Arctic shipping, but failed to address HFO. 

In February, the Arctic Council will once again consider new documents regarding heavy fuel oil, but the time has come for action. Extensive and persuasive evidence has already been sufficiently brought forward for our northern leaders to act. 

The benefits of banning HFO in the Arctic are three-fold and urgent. 

How often is there an opportunity like this to kill three birds with one stone?

It’s an arctic tradition to take actions that count on many fronts. A call by the Arctic Council to ban HFO in arctic waters is a unique opportunity to both protect our northern environment and make significant northern contributions to combating climate change. 

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