World Leaders Must Arrest Arctic Climate Change Impacts

Reacting to news of the Arctic summer sea ice minimum reaching its second-lowest extent in the 42-year satellite record on September 15, and to recent reports of a polar heatwave, Greenland ice sheet’s loss of million tonnes of ice per day, the collapse of the Spalte glacier and Milne Ice Shelf, and the Arctic’s shift to a new climate, the Clean Arctic Alliance today called on world leaders to take urgent action to slow Arctic warming.

“With temperatures reaching 38° Celsius north of the Arctic Circle in June, and Arctic sea ice melting faster than most climate models predicted, the Clean Arctic Alliance is calling on world leaders to take urgent action to curb warming of the Arctic region, by accelerating national and regional policies and practices that will fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement, especially that of limiting the increase to 1.5o Celsius – requiring a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030”, said Dr Sian Prior, Lead Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance. “The extreme summer of 2020 is demonstrating, with global mean temperatures already showing an increase of 1.1° Celsius, that unless urgent and collective action is taken, a 2° Celsius increase will prove detrimental to human health and wellbeing, our economies and the environment”.

The Clean Arctic Alliance, which comprises 20 international non-profit organizations, is campaigning for a robust and effective ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil by shipping in the Arctic, while advocating for shipping to decrease its climate impact, particularly through reductions in black carbon emissions.

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Representation Image – Credits:

This summer Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent ever throughout July with substantial openings of the sea ice north of Alaska and within the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, while the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic coastline opened in July for the first time ever. The melting slowed somewhat during early August but picked up again in September to reach the annual sea ice minimum in mid-September, and it is the second-lowest summer sea ice extent since the records began, over 40 years ago. Scientists are now predicting summers with no sea ice by 2035.

Arctic sea ice is important to minimizing risks of reaching global warming tipping points and thresholds not just in the Arctic, but in the global climate system. Arctic summer sea ice is expected to be lost at around 1.7° Celsius global warming; by 1.5° Celsius – which is expected to be reached between 2030 and 2052 – there is likely to already be several days or weeks without ice and by 2° Celsius the Arctic would be ice-free for several months every year. While this might be hailed as a boon for shipping in the Arctic, it is not good news for the global climate system, as it drives further warming through feedback loops. Ice loss from the Arctic ice cap drives the freshening of the oceans (decreased salinity due to freshwater from glaciers) and global sea-level rise, while the melting Arctic permafrost releases climate-warming gases including methane, that drive further climate changes. In addition, recent research suggests that loss of Arctic sea ice will lead to “projected Increases in extreme Arctic ocean surface waves”. Loss of Arctic sea ice will have impacts outside the Arctic – affecting mid-latitude weather patterns. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) observed that this has already happened with 1° Celsius of warming.

“The Earth has already undergone nearly 1° Celsius of warming since the late 1800s, and the Arctic is warming much faster – between 2 to 3° Celsius over the same period. Temperatures over the Barents Sea and around the Svalbard archipelago have increased by 1.5° Celsius per decade over the past 40 years. When the global temperature has increased by 1.7°Celsius, we will be on track for an ice-free Arctic for several months of the year”, continued Prior. “The loss of Arctic sea ice is not only catastrophic for Arctic communities, the ecosystems they depend upon and ice-dependent wildlife, it has enormous ramifications for the entire planet. It will potentially upset weather patterns further south, drive the loss of snow and glaciers from mid-latitude mountain regions and also have an impact on fisheries.”

Ice Cap Loss and Sea Level Rise

A paper published in Nature Climate Change on August 31, 2020, demonstrated that mass loss from the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica due to melt-water and crumbling ice have, since 2007 to 2017, aligned almost perfectly with the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change’s (IPCC) most extreme forecasts, with the potential to cause catastrophic sea-level rise worldwide. Sea level has already risen globally by over 60mm between 1997 and 2015, and in 2016 it was estimated that sea level is now rising at a rate of 3.4mm per year. If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, the whole Greenland ice sheet is expected to melt, resulting in between five and seven meters of sea-level rise in the next millennium. Even limiting emissions now so that they are declining by the end of this century could result in a two-meter rise in sea level globally according to a NASA study published more recently.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that it was necessary to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030 in order to keep the rise in global temperature below 1.5° Celsius this century. To achieve this, policies and practices that will meet the Paris Agreement’s goals must be put in place now, and every sector must take responsibility for their own actions and ensure that all emissions are included in climate targets.

“Governments are facing the most consequential decision collectively made in the history of humanity: whether to take concrete steps to keep the planet below 1.5°Celsius warming, or make the decision – either explicitly or de facto through inaction – to force the planet’s temperatures higher”, said Pam Pearson, Director, and Founder, International Climate Cryosphere Initiative (ICCI).

“The message is clear: 2° Celsius means a completely unacceptable risk of loss and damage to human society, from cryosphere dynamics alone. We must aim for 1.5° Celsius, and to be frank, to the extent possible plan for a return to 1° Celsius as soon as possible because of the way the cryosphere will respond even at the long-term 1.5° Celsius level, through negative emissions measures.This is an issue of generational justice, and the legacy we leave behind”, said Pearson.

The International Cryosphere Climate Initiative’s Iceblog reports that “fires in the Arctic in June released more carbon dioxide and other polluting gases than in any previous month in the last 18 years of satellite-based monitoring”.

“The Arctic is not only impacted by activities in the region but also by emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon coming from the generation of energy for industry and transport, as well as land use and other sources from outside the region”, concluded Pearson.

Black Carbon

Black carbon, while not a climate gas, is a short-lived climate forcer – it is the strongest light-absorbing component of particulate matter, and is a critical contributor to human-induced climate heating, especially in the Arctic where the impact of black carbon emissions is magnified because of the proximity of snow and ice. Black carbon also has a negative impact on human health, including respiratory diseases and premature death.

In 2017, Ministers of the Arctic Council (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United State) adopted a collective, aspirational goal of reducing black carbon emissions by between 25 to 33 percent relative to 2013 levels by 2025. Two years later the Arctic Council expert group made a recommendation that relevant actors “develop, as appropriate, and report on measures and best practices to reduce particulate matter and black carbon emissions from shipping as a matter of urgency.

Despite efforts by the Arctic Council to reduce black carbon emissions from all activities in the Arctic, emissions are rising as shipping increases in the region. Between 2015 and 2019 there was an 85 percent increase in black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping, and a proposed ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic is so weak it would only reduce black carbon emissions by five percent. The Clean Arctic Alliance is calling for “a meaningful ban on HFO use and carriage which is “fit for purpose” and would reduce black carbon emissions by between 30 to 45 percent, and combined with the installation of a particulate filter could reduce black carbon emissions by over 90 percent”. Such a ban is currently being considered by the UN body that governs international shipping, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), but the ban was recently denounced by the Clean Arctic Alliance as “full of dangerous loopholes”.

Shipping Sector Responsibility

“It is not enough to think that emissions’ reduction is someone else’s responsibility”, said Prior. “All sectors – from agriculture to construction, energy production to all forms of transport – aircraft, trains, road vehicles and ships, along with all shipping practices – cruising, carriage of cargoes, to fishing must change to ensure that all greenhouse gas emissions, including black carbon, are reduced in line with the Paris Agreement’s goals”. The IMO and its members must step-up and deliver action to eliminate black carbon emissions and rapidly reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane emissions with the intention of moving to decarbonise the sector by 2035. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, without further action, the international shipping sector could account for 17% of global CO2 emissions by 2050 – an increase from its current share of 3%.

“The loss of summer sea ice, not only allows for greater access to the Arctic and its resources by ships and maritime industries, but it also lengthens the time over which ships can operate in the Arctic. These activities drive an increase in the risks to the Arctic, its communities and its wildlife – risks of heavy fuel and distillate oil spills, increased black carbon emissions, increased underwater noise, and discharges of greywater and scrubber wastes.”

The Clean Arctic Alliance is calling on world leaders to take the following urgent action to slow the impacts of climate change on the Arctic

Show leadership by example, by accelerating national and regional policies and practices that will fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement, especially that of limiting the increase to 1.5o Celsius – requiring a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030.

Through the International Maritime Organization, adopt mandatory measures to reduce ship speed to effect deep immediate reductions in climate emissions from ships.

Agree an effective and credible International Maritime Organization regulation which bans the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil by Arctic shipping from January 2024 – without exemptions or waivers for any vessels. See: Clean Arctic Alliance Slams Proposed Arctic Shipping Regulation as Full of Dangerous Loopholes

Support a mandatory International Maritime Organization regulation requiring ships to switch from heavy fuels to distillate fuels (or other cleaner fuels) in the Arctic, and install efficient particulate filters in vessels, in order to reduce black carbon emissions by over 90% in the Arctic region, where black carbon emissions are especially damaging.

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