Threat of ‘black carbon’ to the Arctic as shipping routes open up with global warming | Shipping emissions
In February, a Russian tanker, Christophe de Margerie, made history by navigating the icy waters of the northern sea route in the middle of winter. The pioneering voyage, from Jiangsu in China to a remote Arctic port in Siberia, was heralded as the start of a new era that could reshape global shipping routes – slashing travel times between Europe and Asia by more a third.
This has been made possible by the climate crisis. The shrinking of the polar ice allowed maritime traffic in the Arctic to increase by 25% between 2013 and 2019 and this growth is expected to continue.
But Arctic shipping is not only made possible by the climate crisis, it also contributes to it. More ships mean more exhaust, which is accelerating the melting of ice in this sensitive region due to a complex phenomenon involving “black carbon”, an air pollutant formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels.
When carbon black, or soot, lands on snow and ice, it dramatically accelerates melting. Dark snow and ice, by 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 global average, saw an 85% increase in black carbon from ships between 2015 and 2019, mainly due to increases in tankers and bulk carriers .
Particles, which aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular diseases in cities, are short-term but powerful climate agents: they account for more than 20% of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from ships, according to one estimate.
Yet unlike other transport sectors, including road, rail and inland waterways, where air quality standards limit emissions, no regulations exist for maritime transport. Last November, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) passed a resolution on using cleaner fuels in the Arctic to reduce black carbon, but left it as a voluntary decision.
Last week, the IMO was once again in the spotlight. A coalition of environmental groups warned at a meeting of its pollution, prevention and response subcommittee that its resolution did too little to tackle the Arctic climate crisis. They submitted a document calling on governments to agree on mandatory regulations to reduce black carbon emissions from shipping in the region.
“We are reaching this cascading tipping point for climate,” said Dr Lucy Gilliam, Seas at Risk’s maritime policy manager. “With the IPCC report, we see again why we need to do something urgently about black carbon.”
Last Monday, scientists from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that it was “now or never” to act to avert climate breakdown. They concluded that the international community was underperforming on climate commitments, but pointed to the shipping industry and the IMO for particular criticism.
Pollution from global shipping rose 4.9% in 2021, according to a report by ship brokers Simpson Spence Young.
“IMO Member States must agree on ambitious and urgent global action to drastically reduce black carbon emissions from ships this decade, in order to alleviate the climate crisis in the Arctic,” said Dr Sian Prior. , senior adviser to the Clean Arctic Alliance, a coalition of 21 nonprofit groups lobbying governments to protect Arctic wildlife and people. She urged states and regions to do their part by taking immediate action to reduce black carbon from ships.
If all ships using heavy fuel oil in the Arctic switched to cleaner distilled fuel, it would reduce their black carbon emissions by 44%, the Alliance said. Heavy fuel oil or bunker fuel is cheap, low quality, viscous oil contaminated with substances such as nitrogen and sulfur which make it more polluting than distillate.
If all ships also installed diesel particulate filters, which reduce emissions by capturing and storing soot, black carbon could be reduced by a further 90%.
However, others say that the IMO’s 2021 ban on heavy fuel oils in the Arctic – a measure to reduce the risk of spills and which is expected to come into force in 2029 – will lead to a reduction in black carbon.
“The tide is already swimming in the same direction,” said Paul Blomerus, director of Clear Seas: Center for Responsible Marine Shipping, an independent research institute in Canada funded by industry and government. “Many Canadian-flagged ships are switching to distillate fuels, prior to the IMO ban, which will have the added effect of reducing black carbon emissions.
“You could say that IMO only has so much bandwidth and we should focus on decarbonization and how to get to net zero by 2050.”
He also noted the major role played by Russia in Arctic shipping. “Whether they follow IMO regulations, no one can guess under the current circumstances,” he said.