UN resolution to reduce black carbon hailed as ‘good first step’ for Arctic

Ships are framed by pieces of melting sea ice in Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Satellite pictures show Arctic sea ice is now at its second-lowest level in more than four decades. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

UN organization adopts voluntary measure with impacts for black carbon emissions in Arctic

The United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO) has adopted a voluntary measure that could have significant impacts for black carbon emissions in the Arctic.

Canada co-sponsored the resolution calling for the use of cleaner fuels by ships operating in the Arctic, to encourage the reduction of black carbon emissions in the region.

Black carbon is an emerging and growing problem in the Arctic, according to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, the science arm of the Arctic Council, said Walt Meier, senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The Arctic Council found shipping in the Arctic has increased by 25 per cent over the last nine years, partly because it has become more viable due to melting ice, said Andrew Dumbrille, lead specialist of marine shipping and conservation at the World Wildlilfe Fund-Canada.

Melting effect

Black carbon — fine particles that exist through the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels — land on snow and ice when a ship passes through, said Meier. This affects the albedo, the whiteness of the surface, so the sun is absorbed, causing the snow and ice to melt, he said.

Accelerated melting of ice and snow is already a problem due to greenhouse gases and global warming, and black carbon makes a problem that’s already happening even worse, he said.

Black carbon has an effect like a greenhouse gas, said Dumbrille.

While particles landing is a concern, local temperature warming in the air around an emission source, is also a problem, said Dumbrille.

Climate change is being more acutely felt in the Arctic, where warming happens two to three times faster than the global average, said Meier, and regulation hasn’t caught up.

“If anything, we need more stringent regulations in the Arctic than we do in the mid latitudes, because it’s a more sensitive environment,” said Meier.

North of 60 currently has lower emission standards than southern waters of Canada.

‘Good first step’

The resolution which passed at the IMO is “a good first step in decarbonization”, said Dumbrille, a sentiment echoed by others.

It is a voluntary call to have ships switch to distillate, lighter, cleaner fuels instead of residual fuels many ships are currently burning, which are heavier and produce more black carbon.

Paul Blomerus, executive director of Clear Seas, an independent not-for-profit research centre that supports safe and sustainable marine shipping in Canada, said just because it’s voluntary doesn’t mean the move should be dismissed.

“Most pollution control measures started out as voluntary protection measures,” said Blomerus. “It’s the indication of a start of a process that will lead to meaningful reductions.”

The costs

The switch will come at a financial cost and that will be borne by someone, said Blomerus.

Clear Seas, in partnership with Canadian Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance and Vard Marine, has conducted an Arctic Marine Natural Gas Feasibility Study which found that switching from residual to distillate fuels could cost more than 40 per cent more.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) has actively been fighting for action on the issue.

“We depend on the snow, ice coast and marine ecosystem for our transportation and food security,” said Lisa Koperqualuk, vice-president international of the ICC.

While Inuit communities are dependent on the Arctic shipping fleet for their re-supply, they want to see their Arctic environment, sea, ice and coasts protected and are very concerned about the effects of black carbon causing the ice to melt, she said.

The council recognizes there is some cost involved in switching fuels.

“We have asked for and supported a transition fund to be established by the government to offset costs borne by industry,” said Koperqualuk, adding, “communities must not bear the cost of environmental protection.”

Sau Sau Liu, senior communications advisor for Transport Canada, told CBC News the federal government will continue to subsidize the cost of goods shipped to northern communities through various programs that address cost of living and food security impacts in Canada’s northern communities.

What happens next

Unlike other environmental harms, black carbon and its effects are “pretty easily reversible,” said Meier.

The ships already in use can switch the type of fuel they use overnight, said Blomerus.

Doing so would have a financial implication, and potentially a huge environmental one.

Black carbon accounts for one fifth of the shipping industry’s global climate impact, said Dumbrille.

On average, a ship changing from a residual to distillate fuel will trigger about a 44 per cent decrease in black carbon emissions, but the difference could be as high as 80 per cent, he said.

Canada is looking to implement a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters by July 2024, said Liu.

Canada is also working with other countries on measuring black carbon and enhancing air pollution protections in Canada north of 60, she said.

Related stories from around the North:

Finland: Better wildfire & agriculture management among recommendations from Arctic Council black carbon expert group, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Greenland accedes to UN treaty against mercury pollution, Eye on the Arctic

Russia: U.S., Russia thwarting black carbon reduction efforts in Arctic, says Finland, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Scientists warn of Arctic microbial threats induced by climate change, Radio Canada International

Clara Pasieka · CBC News

Clara Pasieka is a reporter with CBC North. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in Ontario and New Brunswick. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York/Osgoode.

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