It’s time to kick fossil-fueled ships out of the Arctic

Gwen Dobbs
Date: March 1, 2024

By James Gamble, Senior Director, Arctic Program

Home to imperiled polar bears, bowhead whales and more than 5,000 species of wildlife, the Arctic is feeling the brunt of climate change more than any other region in the world. Snow and ice are melting at an increasing rate – contributing to rising sea levels and causing extreme weather that is felt around the world.   

Ocean cargo ships run on heavy fuel oil – the dirtiest fuel in the world – and produce a climate pollutant known as black carbon. Black carbon contributes to increased sea ice melt in the Arctic. When black carbon falls on snow or sea ice, it reduces the reflectivity of the ice and increases how much heat it absorbs leading to more and more sea ice melt.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way. I just returned from a meeting held by the International Maritime Organization, the world’s regulator of the shipping industry, where we were advocating for realistic solutions to clean up shipping in the Arctic on an accelerated (and needed!) timeline. For the first time, you could feel the tide shifting and urgency to address some key issues to move to clean ships and technologies in Arctic waters.

It was clear that mandatory regulations to limit black carbon emissions, clean up maritime fuels, improve sewage treatment plants and end the use of scrubbers were all now on the table. Even a year ago, these regulations would not have been a presumptive way forward on any of these issues.

During the meeting, we called on the IMO to address the use of scrubbers and highlighted the significant impacts of scrubbers sharing an intervention:

Roughly 10 gigatons – which is 10 billion tons – of scrubber wash water are discharged into oceans annually, according to an International Council on Clean Transportation report on global discharge waste – that is just a bit less than the total weight of all cargo transported by ships in a year and the amount of discharge water is growing.

Dilution is not the answer to pollution, and the toxins released by ECGS [Exhaust Gas Cleaning System] do not just disappear, and, in particular, have the potential to devastate many organisms including those at the very bottom of the ocean food chain which can have profound effects on everything above.

It is important that a strong message is sent regarding new builds, and that EGCS should not be part of their design, while we work on ways to end the damage from scrubber systems on existing ships.”

Courtesy of the Clean Arctic Alliance

We also highlighted shipping’s role and outsized impact on black carbon emissions:

“There are many of us in this room who know a lot about the Arctic, and we are seeing how quickly it is changing, and the fact is that actions to slow Arctic warming are the most profound steps we can take to protect our planet from the near-term effects of climate change. To do this we are not pinning all our hopes on shipping, we are working on wood burning, ground transportation, and other ways to reduce BC in the Arctic, but the fact remains that shipping is a very significant source, and unlike the others, it is continuing to grow.”

How can we easily address these issues?

  1. Choose cleaner fuels to end and phase out black carbon emissions. End the use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, and begin the transition away from all fossil fuels, including liquefied natural gas which is a potent climate pollutant.
  2. Reduce and end the use of exhaust gas scrubbers. Scrubbers have a similar job as the catalytic converter in your car. But, unlike catalytic converters, scrubbers clean the air, only to dump the discharge in the ocean, harming marine life and polluting our waters with heavy metals and Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
  3. Improve vessel sewage treatment plants and procedures. Sewage creates a health hazard for coastal communities and marine species, and contributes to ocean pollution in several ways.