The Arctic is cool — let’s keep it that way

International community rallies to protect Arctic waters

© Dj Tyson, Pacific Environment

The Arctic took centre stage at the 7th session of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR) sub-committee in London, England, from February 17 to 21. The IMO is the United Nations specialized agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships.

The WWF delegation closely followed the PPR7 agenda, especially the sections on the ban that dealt with heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Arctic, discharge of sewage and grey water, and scrubber water discharge.

HFO ban hits a bump in the road

A few days before the PPR 7, Canada announced support for an HFO ban in the Arctic, becoming the seventh of eight Arctic countries to support the ban. When ships burn HFO for energy, it produces black carbon, which causes Arctic sea ice to melt by increasing local warming. If spilled in cold polar waters, HFO persists for weeks with devastating impacts on marine life and coastal communities.

All Arctic states except Russia rallied behind a ban to be implemented in 2024. To reach consensus, the states included a waiver/loophole that exempts many ships from the ban, allowing much of the traffic in the Arctic to continue using and carrying HFO until 2029.

© Dj Tyson, Pacific Environment

“It’s a disappointing opt-out clause, but states don’t have to grant the waiver. We need to make sure the Arctic countries that compromised on the timeline for a ban don’t use any loopholes and insist ships comply with the ban by 2024,” says Andrew Dumbrille, WWF-Canada’s senior sustainable shipping specialist.

Before a final decision is made on the ban at the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) 76 this October, the states must improve the implementation times and ensure Indigenous and local communities in the Arctic are protected from a potential spill.

The HFO ban at the IMO was followed closely by Inuit, whose voices are vital to Arctic protection.

“I was happy to be part of the meeting to see the countries agreeing on banning the use of HFO in Arctic waters. I am more aware of the ships who come to our communities to Northern Quebec. I am also looking forward to telling stories to other Inuit from Nunavik to be attentive about protecting Arctic water. It is a big part of the Inuit culture to go hunt and fish in the Arctic. Inuit have to know that these vessels could put risks on our mammals and animals through HFO,” says Akinisie Novalinga, a young Inuk woman from Puvirnituq who attended the PPR7 in London.

When air pollution becomes marine pollution

One way that the shipping community has tried to deal with the problem of HFO pollution is through the use of scrubbers (also known as exhaust gas cleaning systems because of the function they serve). Scrubbers remove some of the pollutants from a ship’s air emissions, but they dump those contaminants into the ocean, impacting marine ecosystems and coastal communities. Coastal states such as Singapore, China and Malaysia have banned the use of scrubbers over concerns about how the discharge water could impact the coastal environments and local food security.

During PPR 7, the need for area-based measures to limit the impacts of scrubber water discharge was highlighted, including distance from land, polar regions, culturally significant areas and particularly sensitive ecoregions. These measures are crucial, especially in the face of potential impacts of scrubber water discharge on endangered marine mammals.

Scrubbers are not a solution, and they are particularly problematic in Arctic waters — their acidic discharge has the potential to impact the local marine ecosystem. Discharging acidic solutions in high latitude marine environments enhances local acidification, which is already heightened due to the increased capacity of cold water to absorb atmospheric CO2.

International regulations for grey water look…grey

As if all of these issues weren’t enough, grey water (which is the waste water from all the life that happens on a ship, including wash water for the ship and for humans) poses a growing threat to marine wildlife and ocean communities as shipping traffic increases. Grey water is full of bacteria, metals, pathogens, detergents, plastics, oils and excess nutrients, all of which can disrupt marine life in different ways.

Unfortunately, a proposal made at PPR7 that would include grey water treatment standards in the sewage treatment regulation agenda was not accepted.

“The importance of regulating grey water at the international level was acknowledged by some member states. Ongoing discussions need to include grey water as part of wastewater management because of the range of risks it poses to wildlife and people who rely on healthy oceans, and because the volume being dumped is growing every year,” says Sam Davin, WWF-Canada’s marine shipping and conservation specialist.

Imavut (“our waters” in Inuktitut) event

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) hosted an outstanding cultural reception on the first evening of the PPR7 meetings.

The event included Arctic-inspired food, speeches, the display and presentation of a carving to the secretary-general, and — the highlight of the night — throat singing by Cynthia Pitsiulak and Annie Aningmiuq.

© Dj Tyson, Pacific Environment

The Imavut event was just the beginning of Inuit presence at the IMO. The ICC has completed their application for permanent consultative status at the IMO, which means that if accepted, Inuit will have their own seat at IMO meetings.

“Our presence at IMO is important as matters relating to our environment, our land, waters and ice are currently subjects of discussion. Our lives are deeply connected to the marine ecosystem and connected to our culture, our sustenance, our way of life. ICC will continue to engage in the IMO on matters relating to marine transportation in Inuit Nunaat (Inuit homeland in Inuktitut),” said Lisa Koperqualuk, Vice-President of Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada.

A decision on the approval of the ICC permanent consultative status by the IMO Council will likely occur mid-year, and countries like Australia, Canada, Brazil, France and India can support Indigenous voices at the IMO by voting in favour of the ICC application.