Arctic black carbon: The challenge for international governance

3 June 2015

Increased international maritime traffic raises questions around how to tackle black carbon, or soot, affecting the Arctic region. 

Black carbon – commonly known as “soot” – is a distinctive and serious climate change problem in the Arctic region. It was a central item on the agenda of the April Arctic Council ministerial meeting held in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada. Of particular concern is the extent to which black carbon emitted from ships powered by fossil fuels exacerbates the decline of sea ice and reduces the albedo effect of the ice. This term is used in the measurement of how much solar energy is reflected, rather than absorbed, by a particular surface. Ice has a high albedo with much of the sunlight hitting it bouncing back out to space. In other words, soot settling in the Arctic region reduces the amount of sunlight reflected back into the atmosphere by ice and snow.

Increased attention to black carbon (BC) in the Arctic region by bodies such as the Arctic Council and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is also being driven by three ongoing developments: accumulating scientific evidence of the significance of BC’s climate change impacts beyond the Arctic, including ocean acidification and sea level rise; increases in maritime traffic as oil and gas exploration and extraction expand in the region; and the prospect of increased emissions from maritime shipping as new Arctic sea lanes open because of sea ice melt.

More than 90 percent of global trade in goods is carried by maritime shipping and the demand for shipping is expected to continue to grow year on year. Moreover, according to the US-based Arctic Institute, the number of ships using the Northern Sea Route – a shipping lane offering faster connection between Europe and Asia – increased by 54 percent in 2013 compared with the previous year. Of course, the number of vessels involved in Arctic traffic is still very small compared to those using the Suez or Panama Canal, but even modest further increases in the Arctic region could have substantial climate change consequences.

Estimating the impacts of BC on climate change also poses special measurement challenges, however, because it is fine atmospheric particulate matter consisting of particles less than 2.5 millimetres across. Black carbon is thus not a gas and so it is not included among the standardised lists of widely recognised greenhouse gases (GHGs) currently being addressed by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is also very short-lived, as its atmospheric life time averages only about a week, compared with carbon dioxide’s 100 year average. But it is very potent per unit of emission, with a global warming potential that is hundreds to thousands times greater than carbon dioxide, and tens of times greater than methane.

Fortunately there are technological and operational solutions to the Arctic BC problem. Perhaps as much as 90 percent of reductions in maritime black carbon emissions could be achieved by a combination of technological and operational measures: increased use of ultra-low sulphur diesel fuel to reduce the rate of black carbon emissions per weight-distance unit; new fuel efficiency regulations that have been promulgated by the IMO; the installation of new equipment such as particulate filters on diesel engines and scrubbers on smokestacks; and operational measures ranging from slower speeds to the use of port-side electricity sources instead of on-board diesel-power generators. The increased use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a maritime fuel could also reduce maritime black carbon emissions. However, the potential for increased methane emissions from LNG as fuel or cargo is problematic, especially in view of methane’s high global warming potential compared with carbon dioxide.

Arctic Council

The Arctic Council, established as an inter-governmental forum by the Ottawa Declaration of 1996, has eight member states – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. There are six organisations serving as Permanent Representatives of indigenous peoples. The Arctic Council’s observers include 12 states outside the Arctic region, nine inter-governmental and inter-parliamentary organisations, and 11 non-governmental organisations. The Council’s bi-annual ministerial meetings are high-level policymaking events and the chair revolves among the national members on a two-year cycle corresponding to the ministerial meetings. In April the US assumed the chair for the 2015-2017 period.

Washington has said it will place an emphasis on the growing consequences of – and for – climate change in the Arctic region during its chairmanship. The current emphasis on climate change issues expands several years of work by the body’s specialised expert groups. Moreover, at the latest April Ministerial Meeting, the Council advanced the black carbon agenda by approving an Arctic Council Framework for Action titled “Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions Reductions.”

In this the eight member states commit to: “Develop and improve emission inventories and emission projections for black carbon using, where possible, relevant guidelines from the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) and improve the quality and transparency of information related to emissions of black carbon,” and “Enhance expertise on the development of black carbon inventories, including estimation methodologies and emissions measurements, by working jointly through the Arctic Council and other appropriate bodies…”

The Arctic Council appears to be becoming more attentive to climate change issues, including black carbon in particular. It will not, however, be able to promulgate enforceable mandatory regulations unless it undergoes a dramatic transformation in its basic institutional nature. Importantly, Council decisions are taken by consensus. The Council also does not implement its decisions collectively; it has no enforcement authority; and it has no programme budget. Implementation and financing of its programmes are undertaken by individual member states. Its mandate explicitly excludes military security issues. It is thus essentially a discussion forum with a variety of working groups that produce studies about environmental and safety issues. It can serve an important role, however, in drawing attention to the black carbon problem and in collecting and analysing data about it.

International Maritime Organization

As a sector-specific agency in the UN system, the IMO has been granted mandates on two separate multilateral governance topics; one to address the functioning of international shipping trade, and the other to address marine pollution, which links to climate change issues.

The 1948 UN Maritime Conference in Geneva passed a convention to establish the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization that eventually entered into force in 1958. Article 1(a) of the convention states the purposes of the organisation are: "To provide machinery for cooperation among governments in the field of governmental regulation and practices relating to technical matters of all kinds affecting shipping engaged in international trade; [and] to encourage and facilitate the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation and prevention and control of marine pollution from ships." The name of the body was changed to the International Maritime Organization in 1982.

The IMO’s mandate concerning climate change is embodied in Article 2 of the Kyoto Protocol of the UNFCCC: “The Parties included in Annex I shall pursue limitation or reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol [on Ozone Depleting Substances] from … marine bunker fuels, working through … the International Maritime Organization.”

In short, the IMO as a specialised UN agency serves as a key international institution for both trade and climate change issues, and is designed to complement the multilateral trade and climate change institutions.

However, there is tension in the relationship in that the UNFCCC has recognised the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) for emissions cuts while the IMO operates under a trade-policy non-discrimination concept of “no more favourable treatment,” stipulating that its rules apply to all ships equally regardless of the nationality of the owner or country of registration.

The IMO features not only a widely representative membership among countries, but also diverse inter-governmental and non-governmental organisational participation, and industry-specific mandates within the UN system. The UN body currently has 170 member states and three associate members. In addition to the governments representing the 170 members, there are 63 inter-governmental organisations (IGOs) with cooperative agreements and 77 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with consultative status. The European Commission has a cooperative agreement with the IMO, and all of the individual member states of the EU are members. NGOs with consultative status include a broad array of both industry groups, such as the World Shipping Council and the International Chamber of Shipping, environmental groups like Friends of the Earth International, and technical bodies including the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Black carbon has been on the IMO agenda for several years and the organisation’s environment committee recently agreed on a definition of the term. It has not, however, included BC in a new Polar Code. The International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters, to give the code’s full name, addresses safety and environmental issues for shipping in hazardous and environmentally vulnerable waters of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The code will be mandatory through amendments under both the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). It will enter into force on 1 January 2017. Perhaps in the future the code might be used to serve as a legal basis for expanding IMO regulations to mitigate Arctic black carbon.

The most recent meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) exhibited resistance to a proposal to set a GHG emissions reduction target for the shipping industry. The committee pledged instead to continue analytic work in this area. This includes efforts on mandatory measures adopted in 2011 and effective from 2013 on improving the fuel efficiency of new and existing ships. The fuel efficiency objectives of these measures are relevant because they can reduce black carbon emissions.

The fuel efficiency regulations are mandatory, tangible, in force – in the form of amendments to MARPOL – and will evolve over time. These regulations include: the Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) for new ships; the Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan (SEEMP) for all ships; and guidelines concerning the method of calculation of the EEDI, the calculation of reference lines for use with the EEDI, survey, and certification of the EEDI; and development of an SEEMP. According to reports from the MEPC May meeting, the committee did agree to further the development of a data collection system to analyse energy efficiency, although this information may not be made public.

More can be done

An Arctic Black Carbon (ABC) agreement is needed. An ABC agreement could build on the analytic and diplomatic work that is in progress in the Arctic Council and the IMO. Such an agreement can take the form of a club-like partnership involving commitments to limit black carbon emissions from international shipping in the Arctic region and to undertake international technology transfer processes to facilitate emissions reductions. Carefully designed, an agreement could be consistent with both the UNFCCC and the WTO, but not involve either one directly.

There is increasing interest in the possibility of creating international institutional arrangements that have the features of a “club.” The benefits derived from participation in a club have two key features: they can be shared among members and they can be excluded from non-members. In the context of climate change agreements the development of club-like international deals can incentivise participation and compliance. As an institutional modality such an arrangement has the advantages of deterring “free riding” via non-participation and/or non-compliance. In short, countries – or indeed non-state actors – that want to enjoy the benefits of the club agreement must join it and comply with its rules.

There are many possible benefits for signing up to some sort of ABC agreement.  An obvious one is the opportunity to operate in Arctic region waters. Only ships meeting BC-related equipment and operational standards could operate in the Arctic region. An international license for Arctic operations by individual ships and ship owners-operators could be issued on the basis of certification that the required equipment meets operational standards and is properly installed and maintained. The standards could be established by the IMO with direct participation of the International Organization for Standards (ISO). The licensing requirement would be imposed on ships involved in oil or gas exploration or extraction activities, as well as ships engaged in the transport of any goods or people, in order to include all types of ships engaged in international commerce.

An ABC could be similar to the existing Emissions Control Areas (ECAs) for North America, the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and part of the Caribbean Sea that limit sulphur oxide (SOx) emissions. The precise regulations and the implementation procedures could be codified and monitored by the IMO with advice and operational support from a variety of organisations, including the ISO.

Another benefit of an ABC agreement that could be shared by members and excluded from non-members could be a technology transfer agreement, whereby members would be entitled to assistance in the acquisition of the required technology to meet membership and compliance criteria. The scope and funding levels of the programmes would of course be issues to be negotiated.

Participation in an ABC agreement would need to also be open to non-state entities such as ship owners and operators, as well as governments. International financial and development institutions such as the World Bank, regional development banks, the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) could also participate, particularly in helping to develop and implement the technology sharing programmes.

A compliance enforcement system will also be needed. There is already in place a world-wide, satellite-based, real-time tracking system that identifies individual ships, with their position, direction, and speed. Any ship sailing into or through the Arctic region would be required to keep its transponder operating in order to be tracked. Failing to do so would result in a fine, embargo of the ship, and cancellation of the owner-operator’s right to sail ships in the Arctic region for a period of years. All licensed ships would be monitored for compliance with the equipment and operational standards.

Because Arctic black carbon is an increasingly serious contributor to climate change, it is desirable that it be substantially mitigated by technological and operational measures, preferably prescribed in the context of an Arctic Black Carbon (ABC) agreement. Such an agreement can be developed from the work of the Arctic Council and the IMO, with the assistance of a variety of other international organisations with relevant expertise.

Thomas L. Brewer is a Senior Fellow at ICTSD and Convenor of the E15Initiative Expert Group on Measures to Address Climate Change and the Trade System.

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