HFO is a dirty and polluting fossil fuel that powers ships, accounting for 80% of marine fuel used worldwide. Around 75% of marine fuel currently carried in the Arctic is HFO; over half by vessels flagged to non-Arctic states – countries that have little if any connection to the Arctic.

As explained, banning the use and carriage of HFO in Arctic waters is seen as the simplest and most effective mechanism for mitigating the consequences of a spill and reducing harmful emissions in this fragile environment.

The strongly-worded proposal in  MEPC 72 to ban HFO as shipping fuel from Arctic waters was co-sponsored by Finland, Germany, Iceland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the US. The proposal for a ban, along with a proposal to assess the impact of such a ban on Arctic communities from Canada, was supported by Australia, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Ireland, Japan, the League of Arab States, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK. Support from Denmark is particularly notable as it is the sixth Arctic nation to support the ban.

On the occasion, the Clean Arctic Alliance has called for Member States to make every effort to adopt and rapidly implement a ban by 2021. Dr Sian Prior, lead advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, stated:

Thanks to inspired and motivated action taken by a number of IMO member states to move towards a ban on heavy fuel oil, Arctic communities and ecosystems will be protected from the threat of oil spills, and the impact of black carbon emissions...Any impact assessment must inform, but not delay progression towards an Arctic HFO ban, and member states must ensure that Arctic communities are not burdened with any costs associated with such a ban.

Kåre Press-Kristensen, senior advisor in the Danish Ecological Council, added:

With Denmark the sixth Arctic nation to back a ban on HFO from Arctic Shipping, the green alliance of Arctic nations have sent a clear message to the IMO. With both the Danish government and the Danish shipping industry united to ban HFO, we hope to gain further international support for the ban from more nations and progressive parts of the shipping industry. Next step will be to engage Greenland further in planning and preparing for the ban.”

Alaskan Verner Wilson, Senior Oceans Campaigner for Friends of the Earth US, a member of Curyung Tribal Council, with Yupik family roots in the Bering Strait region between Russia and the US, said:

I am grateful that IMO has advanced a ban on HFO to help protect Arctic communities and our traditional way of life. For thousands of years we have relied on our pristine waters and wildlife - and now the IMO has taken this important step to help protect our people and environment.

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As the sea ice recedes, larger, non-Arctic state-flagged vessels running on HFO are likely to divert to Arctic waters in search of shorter journey times. This, combined with an increase in Arctic state-flagged vessels targeting previously non-accessible resources, will greatly increase the risks of HFO spills. Already banned in Antarctic waters, if HFO is spilled in cold polar waters, it breaks down slowly, proving almost impossible to clean up. A HFO spill would have long-term devastating effects on Arctic indigenous communities, livelihoods and the marine ecosystems they depend upon.

This agreement followed an agreement made in July 2017 for MEPC to consider “development of measures to reduce risks of use and carriage of heavy fuel oil as fuel by ships in Arctic waters”.

In addition, IMO states at MEPC 72 reached an agreement to reduce shipping's GHG emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008. This was marked as a historic decision, as the shipping industry aims to align with the Paris Agreement goals.