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ICCT study examines current & projected use of heavy fuel oil in Arctic shipping; growth in BC emissions points to need for policies

A new study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) estimates heavy fuel oil (HFO) use, HFO carriage, the use and carriage of other fuels, black carbon (BC) emissions, and emissions of other air and climate pollutants for the year 2015, with projections to 2020 and 2025.

According to the report, potentially large increases in BC emissions may occur in the Arctic, further exacerbating warming, 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 significantly—jumping up to 46% from 2015 to 2025.


Top: Heavy fuel oil use (tonnes) in the Arctic, 2015, with minimum sea extents. Bottom: Black carbon emissions (tonnes) in the Arctic, 2015. Click to enlarge.

Dwindling sea ice is opening new shipping routes through the Arctic and shipping activity in the Arctic is expected to rise as oil and gas development increases and as ships take advantage of shorter trans-Arctic routes from Asia to Europe and North America. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, 2014a) estimates that 75% of Arctic sea ice volume has been lost since the 1980s. The Northwest Passage (NWP) and Northern Sea Route (NSR) … are the two most economically advantageous routes for trans-Arctic shipping. The trip between Shanghai and Europe is shortened by about a third when the NSR is taken in lieu of the traditional route through the Suez Canal. Similarly, the trip from Shanghai to New York City also is shortened by a third when taking the NWP instead of the path through the Panama Canal. Shorter distances result in fuel, labor, and time savings.

However, with expanded Arctic shipping comes the 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. As described in Comer, Olmer, and Mao (2016), HFO poses a substantial threat to the Arctic environment, not only because HFO is extremely difficult to clean up once spilled, but also because burning HFO emits BC, a potent pollutant that accelerates climate change.

—Comer et al.

The ICCT report uses exactEarth satellite Automatic Identification System (AIS) data along with ship characteristic data from IHS Fairplay to examine shipping in three Arctic regions: (1) the Geographic Arctic (above 58.95 ˚N); (2) the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Arctic as defined in the Polar Code; and (3) the US Arctic, defined as the portion of the US exclusive economic zone (EEZ) within the IMO Arctic.

The report found that shipping within the Arctic as defined by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) consumed an estimated 436,000 tonnes of fuel and emitted 193 tonnes of black carbon in 2015.  This is almost quadruple the most recent (2012, by DNV) estimate.

HFO was the most consumed marine fuel in the Arctic in 2015. In the IMO Arctic, HFO represented nearly 57% of the nearly half million tonnes (t) of fuel consumed by ships, 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, using 66,000 t, followed by oil tankers (43,000 t), and cruise ships (25,000 t). HFO also dominated fuel carriage, in tonnes, and fuel transport, in tonne-nautical miles (t-nm) in the Arctic in 2015. 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.

Specifically, bulk carriers, container ships, oil tankers, general cargo vessels, and fishing vessels dominated HFO carriage and transport in the IMO Arctic, together accounting for more than 75% of HFO carried and transported in the IMO Arctic in 2015. Considering the quantity of fuel these vessels carry on board and the distances they travel each year, these ships may pose a higher risk for HFO spills than others. the ICCT team concluded.

Among the other key findings of the report:

  • Some of the emissions growth between 2012 and 2015 can be attributed to increased vessel traffic, with satellites detecting roughly double the number of ship miles traveled in 2015 compared to 2012.  Emissions from ships operating in areas that were previously ice locked and inaccessible to marine traffic can be clearly seen in 2015, particularly on the Northern Sea Route off of Russia’s coast.

  • Estimates of HFO use and BC emissions is heavily dependent upon the definition of the Arctic.  IMO’s narrow definition of the Arctic, which excludes significant coastal areas around Iceland and Norway, excludes 85% of ship traffic, 90% of fuel use, and 85% of BC emissions from shipping in the Geographic Arctic north of 59 degrees latitude.

  • By 2025, emissions of CO2 and black carbon by ships in the Arctic are projected to increase 5% to 50%, depending upon the level of ship diversions from the Panama and Suez canals through the Arctic as well as the geographic definition of the Arctic used.

  • While less than half of the ships in the Arctic use HFO, it represents 75% of the fuel onboard ships in the Arctic because larger ships, with larger fuel tanks, tend to use HFO instead of cleaner distillate fuels.

  • The majority of HFO carriage in the Geographic Arctic is attributable to ships flagged to non-Arctic states with major ship registries like Panama, the Marshall Islands, Liberia, Malta, and the Bahamas.  This points to the need for an international standard on HFO use and carriage at the IMO, the authors said.

The authors suggested that several policy alternatives could reduce the dual risks of air pollution and fuel oil spills from ships in the Arctic, including regional emission control policies; restricting the use of HFO, the carriage of HFO, or both; and regulating BC emissions regionally or globally.

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.

… Policies could be implemented at the global, regional, national, or subnational scales. Consensus policies that apply specifically to the Arctic region could be effective because ships registered to Arctic states, particularly Russia, account for the majority of HFO use, carriage, and BC emissions in the Arctic. However, because the diversion of ships from traditional trade routes in favor of trans-Arctic routes is likely as the Arctic becomes ice-free for longer periods, policies that apply to the global fleet, or ships intending to sail in the Arctic, are more attractive. Global policies are also desirable given that emissions of BC outside of the IMO Arctic can be, and are, transported northward. Thus, global policies that prohibit the use and carriage of HFO and reduce BC from marine engines will help ensure that the impacts on the Arctic environment from ships are meaningfully reduced.

—Comer et al.




Runaway climate change


Absolutely, they need to nail this as a priority.
If the arctic ice melts at an increased rate due to black carbon, this would be a disaster, a preventable disaster.



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