Be truly “Fit for 55” by adding black carbon emissions from ships

Sea ice volume in the Arctic has shrunk by 72% since since the 1980s, driven by climate-warming greenhouse gases (GHGs) and particles like black carbon (BC). That’s a big problem because the Arctic acts as a climate regulator for the planet: It cools down warm water currents and regulates the global warming effect. Moreover, melting ice creates a perfect habitat for microorganisms and viruses that couldn’t reproduce with speed before. Not only does this potentially expose communities to health hazards, but there is the chance that the next pandemic could come from the Arctic permafrost, where researchers have already discovered viruses not known before.

Last year, the European Union recognized the Arctic as an area of key strategic importance. Also last year, the European Union introduced a new proposal, a package of climate policy measures called “Fit for 55,” which aims to reduce GHG emissions throughout the region by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030. The package includes several measures that target shipping and the ambitions go far beyond what the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has thus far proposed. One is the FuelEU Maritime proposal, which aims to gradually reduce the GHG intensity of marine fuels by up to 75% by 2050; “Fit for 55” also proposes to incorporate shipping into the EU Emissions Trading System. But guess what? Even though BC is a climate pollutant, it has thus far been omitted from the “Fit for 55” package.

If BC were covered under “Fit for 55,” it could help reduce BC emissions from ships that call on EU ports, including those that sail the Arctic. For example, BC could be added to the FuelEU Maritime proposal. In our previous study, we explained how BC can be accounted for in terms of CO2 equivalent, just like other climate pollutants. The current FuelEU Maritime proposal regulates based on 100-year global warming potentials, even though ships emit short-lived climate pollutants like methane and BC. If BC were included, regulating based on 20-year global warming potentials would do more to restrict BC emissions and provide more immediate relief from the harmful warming effects in the Arctic, which is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet.

Restrictions on BC emissions would likely phase in over time, but near-term action is also possible. All ships calling on EU ports and sailing in the Arctic could be required as part of “Fit for 55” to switch to distillate or other alternative fuels. This would be aligned with other EU maritime rules within the package, including in FuelEU Maritime, which apply to voyages whose origin or destination is an EU port. Switching from residual fuels such as “very low sulfur fuel oil” (VLSFO) to distillates does not require engine modifications and distillate fuels are available in any EU port. Moreover, many EU ships already carry distillate fuels on board for when they operate in the Baltic and North Sea Emission Control Areas.

To illustrate what difference this fuel switch can make, we revisited our 2019 study, which explored five Arctic shipping routes that started or ended in the European Union. In that study, each journey’s origin or destination was based in an EU port, and the ships were chosen based on their representation and significance for Arctic shipping. They included two large cargo ships sailing the Northern Sea Route to and from Asia; an Arctic container ship traveling year-round between Denmark and Greenland; an Arctic cruise ship sailing to Greenland; and a bulk carrier shipping iron ore from Canada’s Raglan Mine to the Netherlands.

Knowing how much fuel was burned during each journey, and what engine and fuel type were used, we applied BC emission factors from our previous study, which are consistent with those in the Fourth IMO Greenhouse Gas Study. We estimated that just these five ships together emitted 3.5 t of BC in the voyages we modeled, which were based on their actual trips in 2015 or 2017 (see the map below). If the European Union required ships to use alternative fuels when sailing in Arctic waters, all ships but one would have to switch to distillate fuel. The liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker Christophe de Margerie would be an exception because it has the option of using LNG as an alternative fuel in its dual-fuel engine. If these ships switched to distillate (or used LNG instead of residual fuels for the Christophe de Margerie), BC emissions from these ships would fall to just 1 t, a 71% reduction, and it would avoid 2.5 t of BC emitted in the Arctic. The map shows that each ship can immediately reduce its BC emissions from 50% to 80% when using distillate instead of VLSFO, and up to 97% when using LNG. (Even though LNG solves the BC problem, there are methane emissions, and we have covered this extensively in our research, including this study.)

map of the Arctic andd Northern Europe showing BC reductions possible from the studied shipping routes.

Figure 1. Five Arctic shipping routes and black carbon emission reduction potential from switching to distillates (50% – 80% reductions) or LNG (97% reduction).

Keep in mind that these five ships represent just a fraction of the Arctic shipping fleet, and Arctic shipping is growing: The number of ships entering the Arctic grew by 25% between 2013 and 2019, and our research showed that BC emissions from the 1,700 ships operating in the Arctic (as defined by the IMO) grew from 193 t in 2015 to 356 t in 2019, a nearly 85% increase. If all ships that used residual fuels in the Arctic in 2019 switched to distillate, their BC emissions would have fallen by more than 100 t, per our previous study.

Requiring ships calling on EU ports and operating in Arctic waters to use distillate or other low-BC fuels could reduce BC emissions by 50%–80% for ships that currently use residual fuels, depending on the engine. Distillate fuels are available, they are compatible with existing marine engines, and most ships already carry them on board. Therefore, the European Union should consider adding BC to its climate regulations to reduce the impacts of global climate change and to protect the Arctic and its peoples.


GHG emissions
Emissions control