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Coalition calls for Arctic HFO ban following 'crucial' IMO decision

Clean Arctic Alliance calls for concrete proposals to be brought forward in time for the next MEPC meeting in May.

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Updated on 31 Oct 2016 09:27 GMT

Following the conclusion of last week's International Maritime Organization (IMO) Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) meeting, the Clean Arctic Alliance - a coalition of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - has called for the complete phase-out of the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) by vessels operating in the Arctic.

In a landmark decision, the MEPC decided to set 1st January 2020 as the date to implement a global 0.5% cap on sulphur content in marine fuels.

The decision means that in just over three years' time, ships will either have to run on regulation-compliant distillates, ultra-low-sulphur fuel oil (ULSFO), or alternative fuels such as liquefied natural gas (LNG). Alternatively, shipowners could also decide to have scrubbers installed on their fleet of vessels and continue to use marine fuel with a sulphur content above 0.5%.

"By recognising the threats posed by spills and black carbon emissions from heavy fuel oil, the IMO took a massive step towards the phase out of this dirty fuel from ships sailing in Arctic waters. Getting HFO out of the Arctic will protect the environment and human health, and protect coastal communities and food security," said Clean Arctic Alliance advisor Dr Sian Prior. "IMO member countries must now capitalise on this momentum, by bringing forward concrete proposals in time for the May 2017 MEPC meeting, both to ensure the end of the HFO era, and that the shipping industry starts transitioning towards cleaner fuels, as it expands its operations in the Arctic's fragile and sensitive environment," he added.

Prior said that IMO's decision to cut the sulphur content in marine fuels was "crucial", whilst adding that "the reduction will not eliminate the use of HFO in the Arctic, and a phase-out remains the most desirable way forward".

"By ending HFO use in Arctic shipping, the IMO would not only limit the risks of an HFO spill, but also ensure a reduction of harmful CO2 and black carbon emissions in the Arctic region," said Prior. "The shipping industry must move towards fossil-fuel free shipping - this means phasing out HFO, and replacing it with cleaner, more efficient fuels - for example so-called transition fuels, like LNG or lighter distillate fuels."

Heavy fuel oil is already banned throughout Antarctica, and in the national park waters around the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, leaving only a strictly regulated corridor for ships to access the islands.

Contrasting research related to human health

As previously reported by Bunker Index, according to research recently carried out by Helmholtz Zentrum Munchen (The German Research Center for Environmental Health), requiring ships to use exhaust gas scrubbers and particle filters would be a more effective way to protect human health than imposing a new limit on the maximum sulphur content of marine fuel.

The team, led by Professor Ralf Zimmermann, in a follow-up study to one carried out in 2015, looked at how macrophages in the lungs are affected by ship exhaust gases. Macrophages are said to be much more sensitive than lung epithelial cells and therefore react more strongly to exposure.

The scientists found that fine particles from HFO emissions had a stronger effect on the development of pro-inflammatory reactions than particles emitted from diesel ship engines, but the latter more strongly influence other fundamental biological processes such as DNA-, RNA- and protein-synthesis.

"The emitted particles both from the heavy fuel oil and from the diesel exhaust had similarly high toxic effects on the macrophages. Surprisingly, the toxic effects leading to cell death are even slightly lower in the heavy fuel oil emissions, although the concentrations of known toxic pollutants in the heavy oil emissions are much higher," Zimmermann said.

The study concluded, therefore, that a heavy fuel oil ban would be "probably less beneficial than expected for protecting the health of people in coastal areas".

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