UN shipping body drags heels on carbon-cutting measures

The International Maritime Organization has set a target to halve shipping’s climate impact by 2050, but some countries are resisting early action

Aerial view of a container ship near Singapore (Pic: Flickr/Marco Verch)

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In April, the UN shipping body drew praise for committing to at least halving the sector’s emissions by 2050. But as negotiators got down to the nitty gritty this week, some were in no rush to get started.

A draft action plan last week indicated the International Maritime Organization (IMO) would take decisions on new carbon-cutting measures before 2023. An amended version, to be adopted by the environment committee this week, leaves open the possibility to merely “consider” them.

Countries including France, Ireland and the Solomon Islands promoted measures such as speed restrictions to deliver quick fuel and emissions savings. But others like Brazil, Chile and Saudi Arabia expressed concerns about the economic impacts on trade, particularly in fresh produce.

Instead, these countries argued near-term action should be limited to strengthening existing regulations on ship design efficiency.

Nishatabbas Rehmatula, a senior researcher at UCL Energy Institute, told Climate Home News that this would achieve little in terms of emissions reductions, “whereas other short-term measures such as operational efficiency standards and speed reduction have a chance to reduce emissions before 2023, if implemented in time”.

The initial strategy

The goal is to reduce maritime emissions at least 50% by 2050, from 2008 levels, while pursuing full decarbonisation in line with the Paris Agreement. The strategy also sets a target to reduce CO2 emissions relative to each tonne of cargo shipped at least 40% by 2030 and pursue efforts towards 70% by 2050, and plans to review the IMO’s energy efficiency design rules with an eye to strengthening them.

The debate came weeks after a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned early action was essential to hold global warming to 1.5C. That was the tougher limit in the Paris Agreement, demanded by countries on the front line of climate impacts.

International shipping accounts for 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions and demand for maritime trade is expected to grow.

“Energy efficiency measures, market-based measures, and zero carbon fuels all need to be pursued immediately,” said Morgan Wairiu, a delegate from the Solomon Islands, which is vulnerable to sea level rise.

“Energy efficiency measures can be considered and adopted, but they’re totally inadequate for staying below the 1.5 degrees maximum. We need more than efficiency measures. We need real transformational efforts; the IMO needs to immediately initiate R&D in addressing marine propulsion, alternative low carbon and zero carbon fuels and other innovative technologies in shipping.”

Delegates “paid due lip service” to the IPCC’s message, said Bill Hemmings, campaigner at Brussels-based think-tank Transport & Environment, but many still sought to weaken ambition.

“The danger – perhaps not unexpected – is that the IMO is falling victim to those states determined to see delay. The IPCC calls clearly for emissions to fall within the next 10 years. In that respect the news from the IMO so far this week is disappointing.”

The IMO is inviting concrete proposals on potential carbon-cutting policies and commissioning a fourth study of the sector’s emissions.

Under IMO rules, journalists are not allowed to quote comments made in plenary debates without the negotiator’s express permission. Several national delegates approached by Climate Home News declined the opportunity to explain their positions.

Transparency International and Influence Map have argued a lack of accountability is holding back climate action at the IMO.

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