UN shipping body shelves emissions target

Marshall Islands plea for climate action falls on deaf ears at IMO, leaving CO2 to rise unchecked

Shipping is responsible for 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Pic: National Ocean Service)

Shipping is responsible for 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions
(Pic: National Ocean Service)

By Megan Darby

The UN shipping body will not offer an emissions reduction target towards a global climate deal in Paris this December.

That was the upshot of a debate at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London on Wednesday.

Delegates agreed only to address “at an appropriate future date” a proposal from the Marshall Islands to curb greenhouse gases in the sector.

“The question still remains: Is the IMO committed to reduce emissions?” said Bill Hemmings of the Cleaner Seas Coalition.

“The answer has not been given a clear yes. I think that is a very unfortunate reflection on this house.”

Shipping has a carbon footprint equivalent to Germany or Japan.

Under business as usual, the IMO’s own research shows shipping emissions are set to rise 50-250% by 2050, as a growing population boosts demand.

With countries targeting emissions cuts, shipping’s share of the emissions space will grow even faster – up to 14%.

Existential dilemma

Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum made a personal appeal to delegates to play their part in global climate efforts.

An archipelago of low-lying coral atolls, the Marshall Islands is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and tropical storm surges linked to climate change.

It is also the world’s third largest shipping registry and depends on the ocean for much of its economy.

“The very water that sustains us is lapping at our heels and threatening our survival,” said de Brum.

He called for “all hands on deck to face the greatest challenge we have ever faced”.

Other Pacific island states gave the proposal their full support.

Foot dragging

But while there were many expressions of sympathy, most countries including the US, China and Panama declined to back a target.

Nor did EU member states come through, despite the European Commission declaring its support.

Instead they urged a focus on existing efforts to regulate energy efficiency.

Koji Sekimizu, IMO secretary general, was also ambivalent. He spoke of “solidarity” with the Marshall Islands but stopped short of backing its proposal.

“The shipping industry is a servant to the world community and trade,” he said. “We will ensure that efficiency will be improved and we will ensure that the reduction will be achieved for ship-based emissions.”

The IMO has imposed an energy efficiency design standard on new ships. For existing ships, it has agreed to monitor fuel consumption with a view to potential policy interventions in future.

Yet on Tuesday, negotiators were still at odds over how to collect and use data from ships.

CO2 targets, trajectories and trends for international shipping

In a paper released to coincide with the meeting, UK scientists said emissions curbs needed to be “significantly more stringent” under international climate goals.

The UN climate body is aiming to limit warming to 2C above pre-industrial temperatures. Vulnerable countries argue the goal should be tightened to 1.5C.

The global fleet must get at least twice as efficient by 2030 if shipping is to play its part in a 2C world, the researchers found.

Tristan Smith, energy and transport expert at UCL, said: “The planning for change cannot start soon enough, if it’s going to have a minimum of disruption on international shipping and global trade.”


Writing before the IMO debate, Carbon War Room head Jose Maria Figueres argued an emissions target would bring “substantial business opportunities”.

He cited research from UCL and CE Delft showing the most efficient ships use 30-50% less fuel than average.

“Efficiency makes good business sense,” he said, and low carbon technology is available.

Experts told RTCC the emissions target debate would be back on the table next year at the earliest, if the Paris deal sends a clear signal.

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres gave no indication she would intervene, however. In a phone conference, she said international emissions were outside her domain and the two bodies would run in parallel “at least in the foreseeable future”.

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