UN shipping climate talks ‘captured’ by industry lobbyists

Business interests dominate at the International Maritime Organization, analysis shows, steering it towards weak greenhouse gas emissions rules

National delegations to the International Maritime Organisation are often stacked with shipping industry representatives, making climate progress hard (Photo: Flickr/International Maritime Organization)

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The shipping industry has “captured” UN talks on a climate target for the sector, using its clout to delay and weaken emissions curbs.

That is the conclusion of a report by business lobbying watchdog Influence Map on the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The study was released to coincide with a meeting of an IMO working group on greenhouse gases on Monday.

Based on analysis of delegate lists, meeting submissions and outcomes, it finds business interests exert an uncommon degree of influence over decisions. This, campaigners warn, jeopardises the international climate goals adopted in Paris.

“The research proves almost conclusively that the shipping industry has been lobbying aggressively in the UN against climate change regulations,” Ben Youriev, an author of the report, told Climate Home. “They have completely captured policymaking bodies at the IMO.”

Perhaps the most striking discovery is the extent to which business interests infiltrate national delegations. Researchers found 31 out of 100 member states at the last IMO environmental committee meeting brought representatives from business.

Cosco and Vale are regular advisers to China and Brazil respectively, with the opportunity to advance their agenda in multiple subcommittees.

“The IMO appears the only UN agency to allow such extensive corporate representation in the policy making process,” the report said.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the IMO said: “Nominating people to its delegation is an internal domestic matter for each member state. The IMO Secretariat is not involved in those decisions.”

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Five national delegations were led by commercial flag registries, not government officials. As Climate Home has previously reported, the Marshall Islands former foreign minister Tony de Brum faced resistance from registry figures when he sought to claim his seat at the forum. While the low-lying Pacific island state is known for advocating ambitious climate action, its ship registry – the second largest in the world – is based in Virginia, US and has little accountability to the country’s elected leaders.

Registry president Bill Gallagher said in an interview with Maritime Reporter in July: “We used to send a taxi over to IMO and now we send a bus. And that’s true. I mean, we really spend a lot of money as a flag state, sending the right people to IMO. Our regulatory guys say, ‘If you’re not in the working groups, you’re not impacting what happened’. Where you really make a difference is at the working groups. So we’re not only just sending a couple guys to sit in a chair; we actually are very active in the working groups.”

On top of these discreet channels of influence, the industry is visibly represented through trade associations like the International Chamber of Shipping, which have official observer status. Representing 80% of the world’s merchant fleet, the ICS brought a bigger team to the last environmental committee meeting than 85% of national delegations.

As an example of its sway, Influence Map points to last October’s environment meeting, when 13 countries explicitly endorsed the ICS proposal. In the end, member states adopted a timetable for setting climate targets very similar to that suggested by industry, deferring implementation of greenhouse gas curbs to 2023 at the earliest.

Shipping Watch reports that industry voices are also expected to prevail at this week’s meeting, occupying a middle ground between ambitious European states and more conservative emerging economies.

ICS, along with Bimco, Intertanko and Intercargo, are proposing an “aspirational” target to cap the sector’s emissions at 2008 levels (the pre-financial crash peak) and halve its carbon intensity by 2050. They oppose absolute emissions cuts, on the basis this could constrain growth in world trade.

Climate advocates say that is not nearly enough to align with the Paris Agreement goal to hold global warming “well below 2C”.

Shipping has a carbon footprint roughly the size of Germany. Without intervention, the IMO’s own research predicts that to grow 50-250% by 2050.

The latest available data, published by the International Council on Clean Transportation last week, showed emissions increasing 2.4% between 2013 and 2015. Fuel efficiency improved for many ship classes over the period, but the gains were outweighed by increased demand.

Christiana Figueres, former UN climate chief and founder of Mission 2020, urged the sector to up its game. “The Paris Agreement committed the world to ambitious action on climate change, yet the shipping industry is not up to speed,” she said in a statement. “It’s time to raise the anchor and seize the opportunity between now and 2020 to align with other industries and chart the course to well below 2C pathway”.

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Influence Map director Dylan Tanner told Climate Home he hoped the report would inspire progressive businesses and investors to intervene.

“We need the silent majority of companies to step up and address the difficult issues,” he said. “Investors hate the lack of transparency and they hate not having risks disclosed to them… that is a big target audience, for them to address this not just with ship owners but the shipping value chain as a whole.”

The report praised AP Moller-Maersk as one of the only shipping companies to have a transparent – and relatively ambitious – position on climate policy. Some Scandinavian shipowners associations also support stronger action.

Johannah Christensen of Global Maritime Forum, a Copenhagen-based body promoting collaboration on disruptive trends for the industry, said: “A low-carbon future is achievable if private and public stakeholders work together and must necessarily be based on facts and improved information transparency.”

Investors in the shipping sector may be failing in their fiduciary duties if they ignore “such damning evidence” of lobbying to obstruct climate action, said Alice Garton of environmental law firm Client Earth.

“These findings reveal an industry so resistant to climate progress that it has negotiated a sector-wide free pass on emissions. But no business is exempt from the effects of climate change and it’s time for these firms to be held to account.”

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