Interview: Tackling the Rise of Vessel Traffic in the Arctic

Image Courtesy: Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada
Image Courtesy: Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

As the global demand for commodities continues to increase and the Arctic summer sea ice continues shrinking, the shipping companies are already preparing for the possible surge in ship traffic on two major Arctic sea routes.

Although it would not be possible to open the Northwest Passage in Canada and the Northern Sea Route in Russia year round, shipowners are already investing in vessels capable of sailing through ice.

Andrew Dumbrille, Senior specialist, sustainable shipping at WWF Panda, told World Maritime News that studies have shown that vessel traffic in the Canadian Arctic will double from 2010-2020 and double again from 2020-2030.

However, compared globally to more heavily used areas, it is still relatively small even with the projected increase, he said, adding that the lack of sea ice does not necessarily translate into safe and predictable sailing. Weather, remoteness, lack of search and rescue and spill response, and substandard charting remain factors for ship operators when planning their voyages. Transiting the NWP may cut down on days at sea but it increases risk and adds a significant amount of unpredictability to the voyage.

But, there will be an increase and preparing for that increase is important to do now mainly because of the sensitive nature of the environment and the dependence of Indigenous communities on the sea for their food supply, according to Dumbrille. A major difference in the polar regions over other parts of the global sea is the lack of species diversity and slow growth rates in marine ecosystems. This reality exacerbates an oil spill’s adverse ecological effects, and therefore could have a more harmful impact on Indigenous subsistence practices and, consequently, food security. It’s urgent that ship regulations and best practices are put in place to account for this sensitivity and reliance by communities in the north on the ocean for food supply.

WMN: What is Canada doing to prevent oil spills or accidents which could be caused by an increase in shipping traffic in the Arctic?

Dumbrille: Historically not enough but it is improving. Recently the federal government released an ‘Ocean Protection Plan’ for all of Canada’s oceans. It promises on-the-ground marine installations in the Arctic to support safer unloading of resupply, real-time information on marine shipping activities for community use, a new chapter of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a seasonal in-shore rescue boat station in the Arctic, as well as providing Arctic communities with up to eight vessels for incident response.

Canada has also been proactive, in partnership with the US, in the effort to mitigate the risks and impacts from heavy fuel oil (HFO) use in the Arctic. Along with its recent support at the IMO of the eNGO paper calling for a phase out of HFO use, Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama have committed through a joint policy statement to, “determine with Arctic partners how best to address the risks posed by heavy fuel oil use and black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping.”

WMN: How does the recent development related to International Maritime Organization’s global sulphur cap influence the Arctic shipping? Can we say that that the 2020 date is realistic and how would this goal contribute to the Arctic environment?

Dumbrille: Member states decided to maintain the 2020 regulation on a sulphur fuel cap of 0.5% for all ship fuels globally. It was a historic decision of global significance which provides better atmospheric quality around the globe. There will be some challenges to meet demand for new low sulphur fuels, but it is estimated that it will prevent millions of deaths for decades to come. A study reviewing the health impacts found that on-time (2020 not 2025) implementation of a global low-sulphur fuel cap for shipping would prevent some 200,000 premature deaths due to less toxic fumes, mainly in coastal communities in the developing world.

From an Arctic point of view, it is now a very small step to phase out the use of HFO in the Arctic. Many of the barriers to eliminating HFO in the Arctic are based on the fact that HFO is the primary fuel of choice for operators because of cost and availability. The 2020 decision may tip the scales on supply and price of non HFO fuels such as diesel and even LNG.

For reference WWF-Canada commissioned a study which looked into cost implications of fuel switching in the Canadian Arctic. It outlines how a 0.5% standard would allow a very small, 1%, increase in the cost of goods in the north.

WMN: IMO recently took another step on the road to controlling greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping. How would you asses IMO’s latest milestone and what future steps are expected from the shipping industry on the issue?

Dumbrille: An initial plan from IMO is expected to be released by 2018, which will feed into a UN-led assessment of global climate policies. Despite this member states will only finalise the strategy after a three year project to capture ship-level fuel use data, which starts in 2019, with discussions on tightening energy efficiency standards to be realised by 2018.

The slow kick off of this work shows no urgency, as realistically a decision on real measures will not happen until 2023. Considering what that planet faces this is simply not good enough.

Proposals to ensure all ships record and verify their fuel consumption should be rolled out well before a planned 2019 start date, it’s in the sectors interest to measure fuel they use so they can save fuel. This needs to be done with more urgency in order to inform the sectors climate change strategy from the offset.

The European Union and some small island states want the IMO to define shipping’s “fair share” of climate efforts; leading emerging economies and major flag states think it should focus on energy efficiency and data collection.

The Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) delivered a plan supported by business to ensure carbon neutral growth in aviation now highlighting that IMO and the shipping sector it represents is lagging behind other sectors in dealing with its contribution to GHGs and the sector should have responsibility for its fair share in the context of its contribution to climate change.

WMN: As the shipping industry covers a large portion of global trade, the negative influences of this industry on the environment need to be decreased. What is the shipping industry doing to minimize the effects on the Arctic as compared to the efforts being undertaken globally?

Dumbrille: The Polar Code coming into force January 1, 2017 is a good first step in reducing the impacts and risks of shipping in the Arctic. However, to more comprehensively address environmental impact a second phase of the Code must commence immediately and include measures which were left out during the initial negotiations. For instance, Part I of the Code does not apply to fishing vessels or pleasure craft. This is a major gap from both an environmental and safety point of view and highlights the urgent need for work on the Polar code Part II which will include such vessels.

WMN: Due to the fact that air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from ships are not included in the Polar Code, WWF and other NGOs have urged the IMO to include these topics in its agenda. However, the IMO recently decided to prolong any decision on a global agreement to cut emissions from shipping. What is WWF’s next move related to initiatives to ban the use of HFO by ships?

Dumbrille: WWF as part of a coalition of groups, the Clean Arctic Coalition, submitted a paper to this MEPC meeting outlining pathways to achieve a phase out of HFO.

Canada and the US submitted a positive response to this paper, and along with Sweden, France, Finland, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands spoke up in plenary supporting the need to address or mitigate the risks and impacts of HFO use. And, unusually the IMO Secretary General intervened to encourage input and action on HFO. There is now significant momentum for an official workplan submission to MEPC 71 by one of these supportive states. WWF will support and work with states to ensure the workplan item begins and a process is in place to address the significant impacts from HFO use.

In parallel to the work at the IMO, WWF is encouraging states, either through the Arctic Council or national regulation, to take their own action to reduce the impacts of HFO use. Like Norway who have eliminated HFO use in parts of their EEZ, states can enact similar area based provisions, which could begin with prioritizing sensitive areas, Indigenous hunting grounds, and culturally important areas. Establishing an Emission Control Area within the EEZ of an Arctic state can also be an intermediate step. It would not eliminate HFO completely, because many operators use blends to comply with low sulphur regulations, but it would provide further incentive for the use of alternative fuels to avoid the costs of investing in scrubber technology.

WMN: Taking into account that ballast water management and anti-fouling are only included in the Polar Code as recommendations, how long it will take for the IMO to address these issues more strictly, in your opinion?

Dumbrille: The Ballast Water Management Convention which is coming into force September 2017, applies to all waters, including the Arctic. What is unclear is how its application would or should be any different in the Arctic. Given the lack of species diversity and slow growth rates in Arctic marine ecosystems, invasive species introduction and persistence could possibly have devastating consequences. For example, ballast water management operations at very low temperatures and the potential requirements of more stringent measures such as increased kill rates considering the sensitive receiving environment. Additionally, as thermal barriers to alien species translocations are being removed due to increased temperatures linked to climate change, precautionary measures are becoming more important.

Antifouling systems covered by The International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems in Ships (AFS convention) have little or no polar specifications identified in the Polar Code. Ideally, the PC should specify fit for purpose polar AFS’s which have no biocide content, be suitable for ice operations, and also linked to the biofouling guidelines. The biofouling guidelines should not only be mandatory but have polar specific measures including enhanced levels of hull cleaning, which should match precaution regarding the translocation of alien species on ships hull niche area in such sensitive areas.

WMN: The introduction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as fuel is said to be a step in the right direction. However, the former CEO of the International Bunker Industry Association, Ian Adams, recently said that LNG is not a solution for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Could you comment on whether LNG would help or harm the Arctic?

Dumbrille: WWF-Canada recently studied the environmental impact and economic feasibility of the use of heavy fuel oil, diesel and LNG in the eastern Canadian Arctic. The study found that the use of LNG reduced pollutants by up to 97 per cent. Greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by up to 25 per cent. There was also a significant reduction in the risk of environmental damage from spills, as LNG dissipates into the atmosphere almost immediately.

Though the environmental advantages are clear, there are many technical and practical barriers that exist to the immediate adoption of LNG as the sole Arctic fuel. It is cheaper than diesel, but current HFO prices are lower. A conceptual design also revealed that the cost of building LNG-fueled ships would be higher than conventional options, and that no possibility exists to retrofit HFO-fueled ships currently in operation. And most importantly, LNG is still a fossil fuel and should be considered an intermediate option. For instance, studies have shown when conducting a life cycle analysis of LNG, ‘methane slip’ is possible, which has a more potent GHG impact than Co2, thus eliminating any potential GHG reduction.