IMO Fails to Curb Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Heavy Fuel Oil in Arctic Waters

United Nations shipping agency fails to adopt needed protections

In a year fraught with bad news, we are sorry to report more disappointing news from November’s International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Marine Environmental Protection Committee Meeting (MEPC).

The IMO is responsible for the governance of global shipping, and the MEPC meets every nine months to consider protections for the marine environment. At this meeting, two important topics were on the agenda—greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and heavy fuel oil (HFO) use and carriage for use in Arctic waters.

Greenhouse gas emissions and heavy fuel oil are two topics that are closely linked. At the end of November, temperatures in the entire Arctic Circle were an average of twelve degrees higher than normal for the season. That’s not hyperbole or an outlier spot, and this year’s sad mark for the second-lowest sea ice minimum ever recorded suggests the entire region is melting before our very eyes. Going into MEPC 75, we had hoped the IMO would tackle both the root issue of the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the threat posed by increased heavy fuel oil use from increasing shipping in the region. Starkly reducing the former, and quickly banning the use of the latter were both on the table for discussion.

Instead, the committee approved a proposal that allows the shipping sector’s billion-plus tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions to keep rising. They also approved a ban on the use and carriage for use of heavy fuel oil by ships in the Arctic, but the exemptions to the ban mean that it ultimately does not go into effect for the rest of this decade.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Most galling about the decision on GHGs, it is a complete deviation from an already approved GHG emission reduction strategy. The IMO’s member countries had previously agreed to peak emissions as soon as possible then set a modest target for cuts by 2030 building to “at least” a 50% cut by 2050. This was well short of the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 Celsius target, which would require total decarbonization by 2035, but the IMO’s new measure falls shorter still. At best, the new measure will shave down emissions slightly but do nothing to peak its rise. With this measure in place, shipping GHG’s are expected to grow another 140 million tons in the same time frame, almost equivalent to the entire output of the Philippines.

Heavy Fuel Oils

Ocean Conservancy, along with other NGOs and Indigenous organizations, has been working for years to ban heavy fuel oil use and carriage for use in the Arctic. This extremely dirty fuel is already banned in Antarctica and poses grave threats to the Arctic marine environment. At this meeting the committee did approve a ban of the use and carriage for use of heavy fuel oil, implying immediate elimination of the world’s dirtiest fuel would take place in the region. Instead, the ban includes various loopholes that leave the Arctic, its Indigenous communities and wildlife facing the risk of heavy fuel oil spills for another decade. Under this “ban,” heavy fuel oil will continue to be used in the region until the full ban takes effect in 2029.

What’s Next?

Nations and regions serious about facing the climate crisis now must take immediate national and regional action to curb ship emissions. It’s time to act swiftly and set carbon equivalent intensity regulations consistent with the Paris Agreement for ships calling at their ports, require ships to report and pay for their pollution where they call dock and start to create low- and zero-emission priority shipping corridors.

The same applies to heavy fuel oil. The loopholes to the ban come in the form of five year exemptions for certain types of ships and the possibility of Arctic coastal states granting waivers to ships carrying their nation’s flag. Nations can step up and not issue these waivers, and we can all encourage ships eligible for exemptions to make a switch away from heavy fuel oil sooner than 2029. Nations can even ban heavy fuel oil within their waters, as Norway has done in Svalbard. At Ocean Conservancy, we’re working hard to ensure that HFO use and carriage for use is reduced now, whether required by the IMO or not.

Although we feel the need to share our disappointment in these recent results—there is still some good news: 2021 is nearly upon us and these campaigns are not over! Ocean Conservancy will continue to work inside the IMO, with other stakeholders and with you, to ultimately ensure adequate protections are adopted. You can take action today to protect Arctic marine wildlife from vessel traffic impacts and tell regulators to make the HFO ban stronger to protect Arctic wildlife that depend on oil-free waters.

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