UN ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic come into effect

The icebreaker “50 Let Pobedy” guides a dry cargo ship along the Northern Sea Route. Photo: KadnikovValerii
The icebreaker “50 Let Pobedy” guides a dry cargo ship along the Northern Sea Route. Photo: KadnikovValerii

Publish date: July 3, 2024

But it’s unlikely to impact emissions from shipping along the Northern Sea Route.

On July 1, with several exceptions, a voluntary agreement banning the use and transportation of heavy fuel oil (mazut) in the Arctic, developed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN body regulating international shipping, came into effect. The agreement is expected to be fully implemented by 2029.

Its main goal is to reduce the negative impact of shipping on the Arctic, which is not only one of the most sensitive regions on Earth to anthropogenic impact but also has a huge influence on the entire planet’s climate system. However, within the Arctic itself, climate warming is happening, according to recent estimates, four times faster than on the planet as a whole.

The restrictions introduced on July 1 are aimed at reducing emissions of black carbon, sulfur dioxide, and other toxins produced by the combustion of heavy fuel oil in ship engines, as well as reducing the risk of marine area pollution by heavy oil fractions in case of ship accidents.

According to the Clean Arctic Alliance, a coalition of 22 non-profit organizations, including Bellona, this ban, once fully implemented, will reduce black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping by 44%. At the same time, the IMO emphasizes that 20% of global shipping’s impact on climate change is due to black carbon emissions. In the Arctic, covered in snow and ice, this figure is even higher since black carbon reduces their reflectivity.

Infographics from the Clean Arctic Alliance on the ban on heavy marine fuel in the Arctic. Image:

The only Arctic country that did not join the agreement and has not announced its own plans to ban heavy fuel oil in the Arctic is Russia.

Two other countries, Canada and Finland, will introduce such a ban at the national level, but not on July 1; instead, they will implement it by January 1, 2025.

There is also a contrary example. In June 2024, the Irish ship Arklow Wind entered the territorial waters of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard carrying heavy fuel oil, for which it was fined 1 million Norwegian kroner (87.5 million euros). The fact is that since February 1, 2022, Norway has independently imposed a total ban on its use and transportation in the vicinity of Svalbard.

Such independent measures can play a significant role. Sean Prior, chief advisor of the Clean Arctic Alliance, warns that until the ban is fully enforced, current exemptions, made for both states and individual companies, exclude about 74% of Arctic shipping from its scope.

Exemptions apply to ships with structural protection for their fuel tanks, as well as ships involved in search and rescue operations or ensuring the safety of other vessels. Additionally, each Arctic country has the right to establish its own exemptions and delays until July 1, 2029, that would apply to ships in their territorial waters.

Polar bears in front of a cruise ship, Svalbard, Norway. Photo: OndrejProsicky

This can be critical given the constant growth of shipping in the region. According to the Arctic Council, over the decade from 2013 to 2023, the total distance traveled by ships in the Arctic increased by 111% – from 6.1 million to 12.9 million nautical miles (11.3 million km to 23.9 million km, respectively), and the number of ships increased by 37% – from 1,298 to 1,782.

As of 2019, Russia, which did not join the ban, accounted for 287 kilotons or two-thirds of all heavy fuel oil used in Arctic shipping. In the entire Arctic, around 700 ships using heavy fuel oil were recorded that year, but more than 4% of all its usage was attributed to a single ship – the oil tanker Shturman Skuratov, owned by Gazprom Shipping LLC. Shturman Skuratov continues to make regular voyages along the western segment of the Northern Sea Route, from Murmansk to the northern Siberian port of Sabetta.

There is no more recent data on the use of heavy fuel oil by Russian ships, but since no special measures have been taken by the Russian government, and cargo traffic along the main transport artery of the Russian Arctic – the Northern Sea Route (NSR) – increased from 31.5 million tons in 2019 to 36.254 million tons in 2023, it may have also increased. In 2024, the cargo traffic along the NSR is planned to be increased to 40 million tons.

Due to sanctions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia currently lacks the financial capability and motivation to reduce environmental risks in Arctic shipping.

However, the ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic—even a full ban by 2029, and even if Russia were to join—would only be the first step. At present, there is neither global nor Arctic-specific regulation of black carbon emissions from ships, and there are no target indicators or plans for their reduction. As a result, black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping doubled from 2015 to 2021.

An amendment to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), requiring the use of cleaner fuel in the Arctic, the introduction of Arctic fuel standards, and the creation of black carbon control zones, according to Prior, could form the basis of such regulation.

The boundaries of the Arctic, as defined by the IMO. Photo: Liudmila Osipova /

In addition, the Clean Arctic Alliance believes it is necessary to expand the area where the ban applies, fully including all territories north of the 60th parallel north, and urges Arctic countries to introduce stricter legislative measures to limit the use and transportation of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic. It also calls on companies engaged in shipping in the region to not hide behind exemptions and to transition to more environmentally friendly fuels before 2029.

Nevertheless, the question remains as to which type of fuel is preferable to use instead of heavy fuel oil. Alternatives include methanol, marine gas oil (MGO), biodiesel, LNG, hydrogen, and ammonia. However, the use of most of these (except hydrogen) leads to direct greenhouse gas emissions and, in some cases, to air and water pollution.

According to Bellona, LNG and biodiesel are advisable from a climate perspective only when used with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, biogas should only be used as part of an energy mix with optimal production and combustion methods, and marine gas oil is not a viable option at all.

Furthermore, Bellona, preferring hydrogen and ammonia as the most environmentally acceptable and economically feasible fuels in Arctic conditions, emphasizes that even when choosing these two options, close attention must be paid to the entire production chain to minimize associated greenhouse gas emissions and environmental pollution.