This week, I will be one of many people converging on the Norwegian city of Tromsø, 350km north of the Arctic Circle, for the annual Arctic Frontiers conference.

Government ministers, Arctic officials, people from the shipping, energy and tourism industries will cross paths with scientists, journalists, indigenous peoples representatives and members of non-governmental organisations. Here, where the frequent appearances of the Northern Lights counterbalance the few hours of winter daylight, is where Arctic business gets done.

The business of my organisation, the Clean Arctic Alliance, is getting heavy fuel oil out of Arctic shipping. During a side-event on Wednesday, January 25th, the CEO of expedition cruise operator Hurtigruten, will join Clean Arctic Alliance members Bellona and the European Climate Foundation, to co-sign and launch the Arctic Commitment.

The Arctic Commitment is a clarion call to businesses and organisations working in the Arctic and beyond to join us in calling on the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN body responsible for regulating global shipping, to phase out the use of HFO by 2020, and to urge the shipping industry to switch to higher quality, alternative fuels before that ban is in place.But why the fuss about heavy fuel oil? And why the Arctic?

Heavy fuel oil (HFO) is a dirty, highly polluting and viscous fossil fuel used all over the world by the shipping industry – it poses a problem for the marine environment and climate wherever it’s used. But if HFO is spilled in the cold waters of the Arctic, it breaks down even more slowly and will have devastating, long-term effects on Arctic communities, livelihoods and ecosystems.

HFO is also the source of harmful and significantly high emissions of air pollutants, including sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, and black carbon. When emitted and deposited on Arctic snow or ice, the climate warming effect of black carbon is at least three times more than when emitted over open ocean. Its use has already been banned in the Antarctic, and now it’s time for it to be banned in the Arctic.

Arctic waters are amongst the most productive ocean ecosystems, providing sustenance to large populations of whales, seals, walruses and seabirds. Many high volume fisheries rely on the incredibly fertile Arctic waters. Ending the use of HFO in Arctic waters is one of the ways that we can seek to protect these ecosystems – and the momentum to get rid of HFO is growing.

The need to get HFO out of Arctic waters is beyond debate

In October 2016, at a meeting of the International Maritime Organization, several countries as well as its Secretary-General Kitack Lim, agreed on the need for further consideration of the risks of HFO. A delegation of Arctic indigenous leaders from Russia, the United States and Canada addressed the IMO for the first time since its founding in 1951, also highlighting the threats posed by the use of HFO, as well as other important issues that impact on their way of life in the north.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, HFO

In December 2016, Canada and the US announced a joint “phase-down” of HFO from their respective Arctic regions. Both countries had already formally notified the IMO in September that a “heavy fuel oil spill in the Arctic could cause long-term damage to the environment” and have agreed to propose a plan for the next meeting in July 2017, to implement the necessary work.

The Danish Shipowners’ Association, and our Arctic Commitment partner Hurtigruten have already called for regulating or banning the use of HFO in the Arctic. The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), Danish political party Venstre and Finnish icebreaker firm Arctia have also expressed their support for an Arctic HFO ban.

With ship traffic in the Arctic expected to grow dramatically as Arctic sea ice continues to decline, we’re beginning to see real regional and industry leadership towards protecting the Arctic from future harm. Now we want to see this action replicated throughout the Arctic region, and at the IMO.

The need to get HFO out of Arctic waters is beyond debate. What is needed now is the action and impetus from government and industry to ensure that the Arctic is no longer at risk from spills or the burning of HFO. Using HFO may be a cheap way of fuelling ships, but it’s neither a clever nor clean way to do business.

This is why we'll be in Tromsø this week - to challenge business leaders and civil society to stand with us, and to sign the Arctic Commitment. Who will step forward and join us in demanding the adoption of a HFO ban? Getting rid of HFO from Arctic waters can only be a good thing for the Arctic, our oceans and our climate.

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.

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