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NGOs Urge Shipping Body To Halve Arctic Black Carbon Impacts By Switching Fuels

Black carbon emissions are a special threat to the Arctic from ships are

22 March 2020 15:30 GMT: Webinar: Switching Fuel – How to Cut Black Carbon Emissions from Arctic Shipping 

The Clean Arctic Alliance invites you to join an online event to explore how Arctic shipping can help alleviate the changes take place in the Arctic, and to pose this question: Can a switch to alternative, cleaner fuels contribute to reducing black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping?

Watch video recording here


London, 22 March 2021:- As this week’s virtual meeting of the International Maritime Organization’s Pollution Prevention and Response Sub-Committee (IMO, PPR 8, 22-26 March) opens today, non-governmental organisations are calling on the IMO to seize the chance to immediately reduce climate-warming emissions of black carbon from ships currently using heavy fuel oil in the Arctic by some 44%, by switching them to cleaner distillate fuels [1,2]. 

“This week the IMO has the opportunity put in place rapid and effective regulations to protect the Arctic and the global climate from the warming impacts of black carbon emissions, by obliging vessels operating in the Arctic to switch to cleaner shipping fuels”, said Dr Sian Prior, Lead Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, an international coalition of 21 non-profit organisations. 

“Mandating a switch of fuels in order to cut black carbon emissions in the Arctic would be an easily-won victory for both the IMO and the shipping industry, and put the sector on course towards decarbonisation. Most importantly, getting black carbon out of the Arctic would also be a win for the climate, for the Arctic and the people who depend on its ecosystem for their livelihoods”, she said.

“The IMO has been wrestling with what to do with regard to black carbon for over a decade now – but so far has taken no concrete action has been to reduce emissions. This week, with black carbon on the agenda, IMO Member States have the chance to take rapid and effective action to cut the emissions of black carbon in the Arctic” added Prior. 

“At PPR 8, the IMO should put in place regulations to ensure the shipping industry switches to distillate fuels, such as diesel or marine gas oil (MGO), or other cleaner energy sources, for vessels operating in or near the Arctic. In addition, vessels using diesel or MGO should also be required to install and use particulate filters, as are already required by land-based transport. Such a move could be led by the shipping industry – an act which would bolster confidence that the sector is serious about staying the course towards decarbonisation”. 

“The bunker industry, which supplies fuel for shipping, has indicated that it can meet the necessary demand for alternative fuels to support a migration away from using heavy fuel oil in the Arctic. Ultimately, international regulation by the IMO will also be needed to eliminate emissions of black carbon from shipping, worldwide”.

“Indigenous Arctic communities are extremely concerned about the profound climate changes we are experiencing on the ground”, said Austin Ahmusak, Kawerak Marine Advocate, Nome, Alaska. “The Arctic is warming as a result of human-induced changes to the atmospheric carbon cycle, and has already had an impact on the rich biological diversity Arctic peoples have enjoyed for thousands of years.”  

“It is important that humanity does not stand idly by and accept the current status quo with respect to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as black carbon. Black carbon is just one issue that Arctic Indigenous people need the global community to address. Reducing black carbon from all sources, including shipping is essential – to help to save Arctic species, ensure Indigenous community health, and to prove that humans are worthy stewards of the globe. We call on the whole world to dramatically reduce its black carbon footprint, and the IMO can lead on this by cutting black carbon from Arctic shipping”, continued Ahmusak.

Climate change is having a more rapid impact in the Arctic than anywhere else right now – the recent cold weather that blanketed North America and Europe, and caused chaos in places like Texas, has been linked to the consequences of a warming Arctic. The polar vortex, a low pressure area that spins over the pole during winter, is reportedly being interfered with by strong winds that encircle the planet – the jet stream — which is itself being shifted as a consequence of Arctic warming. What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic – changes taking place in the north will have repercussions further south [3].


About Black Carbon and Heavy Fuel Oil

Around the world, ships typically burn the cheapest and dirtiest fuel left over from the oil refining process – heavy fuel oil (HFO), which produces high levels of black carbon when burned. In January 2020, a new fuel standard was introduced by the IMO requiring ships’ fuels to contain no more than 0.5% sulphur leading the development and use of so-called very low sulphur fuels (VLSFOs) [4]. 

Although these fuel blends contain both heavy and lighter fuels, most will still be classed as HFO since they exceed the density limit used in the definition of HFO. About 7-21% of global shipping’s climate warming impacts can be attributed to black carbon – the remainder being CO2 [5]. When emitted by ships in and near the Arctic, black carbon particles enter the lower levels of the atmosphere, where they remain for under two weeks, absorbing heat. But when it eventually comes to land on snow or ice, black carbon’s warming impact is 7 to 10 times greater, as it reduces the reflectivity (albedo) and continues to absorb heat, accelerating the Arctic melt [6]. 

Although shipping only contributes 2% of the black carbon in the Arctic, it has a much greater heating impact, as other sources of black carbon are higher in the atmosphere with less chance of falling on ice and snow. While most anthropogenic sources of black carbon pollution are being reduced in the Arctic, shipping emissions of black carbon have risen 8% globally in the past decade, and in the Arctic by 85% between 2015 and 2019 alone [7]. With climate warming driving the ongoing loss of multi-season Arctic sea ice, the region is opening up to more shipping traffic; between 2013 and 2019 data published by the Arctic Council showed a 25% increase in shipping traffic and a 75% increase in the total distance sailed in the Arctic, we can expect that further increases in black carbon emissions from shipping will only further contribute to an already accelerating feedback loop [8].

In November 2020, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN body which governs shipping, approved a ban on the use and carriage of HFO in the Arctic – a ban that is set to be adopted this June. Although environmental and Indigenous groups had fought for years for the Arctic to be free of HFO, this ban set to be agreed in a few months contains serious loopholes which will mean minimal reductions in the use and carriage of HFO in 2024 when implemented. Meanwhile current growth in Arctic shipping is likely to lead to an increase in HFO use and carriage in the Arctic between now and mid-2024 when the ban takes effect and further growth by mid-2029, when the loopholes will finally be closed. Under this regime, black carbon emissions are likely, for now, to continue to increase in the Arctic [9].



Further Reading:


Papers submitted to PPR 8 relating to Black Carbon:

Infographics: How Black Carbon Emissions from Shipping Impact The Arctic

Nov 20, 2020: IMO and Arctic States Slammed for Endorsing Continued Arctic Pollution

Clean Arctic Alliance Reacts to Joint US-Canada Statement on Arctic Heavy Fuel Oil Ban



Dave Walsh, Clean Arctic Alliance Communications Advisor, +34 691 826 764



[1] PPR 8: Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (Remote meeting)

 at the IMO:

PPR8 Agenda:

[2] According to the International Council on Clean Transportation’s study on the IMO’s proposed heavy fuel oil ban, HFO-fueled ships emitted 225 tonnes of black carbon in 2019. If they switched to distillate, they would have reduced their BC emissions by 44%. If so, total black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping would have fallen 30% from 356 tonnes to approximately 250 tonnes, accounting for BC emitted from all fuels. This calculation is based on the black carbon emission factors used in the Fourth IMO GHG Study.

International Council on Clean Transportation: The International Maritime Organization’s proposed Arctic heavy fuel oil ban: Likely implications and opportunities for improvement

[3] Heating Arctic may be to blame for snowstorms in Texas, scientists argue

[4] Global limit on sulphur in ships’ fuel oil reduced from 01 January 2020.

[5] International Council on Clean Transportation, Greenhouse gas emissions from global shipping, 2013–2015

IMO Submission: Consideration Of The Impact On The Arctic Of Emissions Of Black Carbon From International Shipping: Greenhouse gas emissions from global shipping 2013-2015

[6] Flanner, M. G. (2013), Arctic climate sensitivity to local black carbon, J. Geophys. Res. Atmos., 118, 1840– 1851, doi:10.1002/jgrd.50176.

[7] The IMO’s proposed Arctic heavy fuel oil (HFO) ban, ICCT Fact Sheet, September 2020.

The International Council on Clean Transportation White Paper shows that in the last four years, there has been a 19% increase in the carriage of HFO by ships operating in the Arctic and a 75% increase in HFO use in the Arctic. This has resulted in a 72% increase in black carbon emissions from ships burning HFO and a 85% increase when all shipping black carbon emissions are considered.

Comer, B., 2021. Expected black carbon emissions reductions from fuel switching. Clean Arctic Alliance PPR 8 Side Event. 22 March, 2021. Register here

[8] Arctic Council First Arctic Shipping Status Report from PAME Working Group highlights increase in Arctic shipping traffic, 14 April 2020

[9] Nov 20, 2020: IMO and Arctic States Slammed for Endorsing Continued Arctic Pollution


About the Clean Arctic Alliance

The following not-for-profit organisations form the Clean Arctic Alliance, which is committed to a ban on HFO as marine fuel in the Arctic:

90 North Unit, The Altai Project, Alaska Wilderness League, Bellona, Clean Air Task Force, Green Transition Denmark, Ecology and Development Foundation ECODES, Environmental Investigation Agency, European Climate Foundation, Friends of the Earth US, Greenpeace, Iceland Nature Conservation Association, International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union, Ocean Conservancy, Pacific Environment, Seas At Risk, Surfrider Foundation Europe, Stand.Earth, Transport & Environment and WWF.

More more information visit