Reports, Case Studies & Assessments

Prevalence of heavy fuel oil and black carbon in Arctic shipping, 2015 to 2025


Dwindling sea ice is opening new shipping routes through the Arctic, with shipping activity expected to increase with oil and gas development and as ships take advantage of shorter trans-Arctic routes from Asia to Europe and North America. However, with increased shipping comes an increased risk of accidents, oil spills, and air pollution. Potential spills of heavy fuel oil (HFO) and emissions of black carbon (BC) are of particular concern for the Arctic. Heavy fuel oil poses a substantial threat to the Arctic environment because it is extremely difficult to recover once spilled and the combustion of HFO emits BC, a potent air pollutant that accelerates climate change.

This report estimates HFO use, HFO carriage, the use and carriage of other fuels, BC emissions, and emissions of other air and climate pollutants in the Arctic for the year 2015, with projections to 2020 and 2025. Particular attention is paid to ships in the Arctic as defined by the International Maritime Organization (the IMO Arctic), as ships in this region can be subject to additional environmental regulations under the IMO’s Polar Code.

HFO was the most commonly used marine fuel in the Arctic in 2015. HFO represented nearly 57% of the nearly half million tonnes (t) of fuel consumed by ships in the IMO Arctic, followed by distillate (43%); almost no liquefied natural gas (LNG) was consumed in this area. General cargo vessels consumed the most HFO in the IMO Arctic, followed by oil tankers, and cruise ships. Although only 42% of ships in the IMO Arctic operated on HFO in 2015, these ships accounted for 76% of fuel carried and 56% of fuel transported in this region.

The top three emitters of BC in the IMO Arctic were fishing vessels (25%), general cargo vessels (19%), and service vessels (12%). Roughly two thirds of 2015 BC emissions attributable to ships in the Arctic were the consequence of consuming HFO. Black carbon emissions are expected to continue to rise in the Arctic, exacerbating Arctic warming. Potentially large increases in BC emissions may occur if ships are diverted from the Panama and Suez canals to take advantage of shorter routes to and from Asia, Europe, and North America. If even a small percentage (1%–2%) of large cargo vessels are diverted from the Panama and Suez Canals through the Arctic over the next decade, BC emissions could rise dramatically, respectively—increasing 46% from 2015 to 2025.

Several policy alternatives could be considered to reduce the dual risks of air pollution and fuel oil spills from ships in the Arctic. Explicitly restricting the use and carriage of HFO in the Arctic would greatly reduce the risks of HFO oil spills and would also reduce air pollution, including BC, provided ships operate on distillate, LNG, or other alternative fuels. An even stronger approach would be to prohibit the use of petroleum-based fuels (e.g., HFO and distillate), which would require a complete shift to cleaner fuels (e.g., LNG, fuel cells), albeit at substantial cost to existing fleets. Finally, Arctic BC emissions could be addressed through regulations that either establish new emission standards for marine engines, require the use of low- or zero-BC fuels, or mandate the use of BC reduction devices such as diesel particulate filters. Such a policy also may encourage a shift toward fuels that are less damaging than HFO when spilled.

Pollutants (SLCPs)