As the world’s third biggest ship registry, Majuro government has maritime clout and could push through emissions curbs
By Megan Darby
In UN climate circles, the Marshall Islands is mostly known as one of those states that will be swamped by rising sea levels.
Its negligible contribution to greenhouse gas emissions makes its heartfelt pleas for ambitious action all too easy for bigger nations to ignore.
At the International Maritime Organization (IMO), on the other hand, the Marshalls carry significant weight: 118 million tonnes, to be precise.
That is the mass of 3,400 ships registered in Majuro, more than any other country except Panama and Liberia.
It means the Pacific state could succeed in mustering support for its recent proposal to target emissions cuts in shipping.
Shipping generates 3% of global emissions today, but this could rise to 6-14% if it fails to match countries’ carbon cutting policies, notes foreign minister Tony de Brum.
“We are an island nation and shipping is one of our lifelines – we cannot survive without it. At the same time, carbon emissions, including those from shipping, pose an existential threat to our people and our country.”
If adopted at an IMO meeting next month, the proposal would force this most lightly regulated of sectors to account for its contribution to global warming.
“It is one of the best things that has happened for a long time,” says Bill Hemmings, a campaigner for the NGO Transport & Environment since 2008. “We hope and expect a positive decision will be taken.”
Countries have agreed to limit global temperature rise to 2C above pre-industrial levels, which entails an overhaul of fossil fuel-powered economies. That is the overarching goal for a climate deal to be struck in Paris this December.
Vulnerable states like the Marshall Islands argue for a tougher 1.5C target.
Either way, shipping is not bound by that framework. It is separately regulated by the IMO, which reports to the UN climate body as an observer only.
“If you put shipping emissions in that framework, you pretty quickly come to the conclusion they have to be reduced,” Hemmings tells RTCC.
“That question has never been put to the IMO before… it is going to be interesting to see how countries react.”
Clean shipping allies
Other Pacific islands are expected to show up to back the plan at next month’s IMO environmental committee meeting (a regular gathering that does not typically attract delegates from all 171 member states).
Many face the same dilemma as the Marshall Islands, counting on ship registration for revenue but grimly aware of the existential threat of climate change.
Poor countries hit hard by intensifying weather extremes are also likely to be supportive, along with Europeans keen to show leadership.
The proposal “could have a lot of impact,” says Tristan Smith, shipping expert at UCL. The Marshall Islands “are such an important voice at the IMO, because they are such a significant flag registry”.
If a majority of countries vote against the measure, the matter will be off the table for another few years. If the vote is in favour, it will go to a committee to thrash out the details.
But there would need to be consensus among member states to make a real difference, Smith tells RTCC. “One of the headaches is whether enough time and diplomatic discussions have gone on behind the scenes for countries to be able to come out strongly in support next month.”
And the plans are bound to face resistance from the shipping industry.
Lobby group the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) is still formulating its response to the Marshallese proposal, spokesperson Simon Bennett tells RTCC.
In general, he says: “We don’t believe absolute emissions reduction targets are appropriate for the shipping industry, simply because shipping is the servant of world trade.
“Demand for shipping is inextricably linked to the growth of the economy and the growth of the world population.”
The IMO has imposed some emissions regulations. Design efficiency standards for new ships were introduced in 2013, while all operators must publish energy management plans.
One of the main agenda items at the next environmental committee meeting is a system to compile energy data from ships.
Shippers should be embracing innovation to achieve emissions cuts of 15% by 2020 and 85% by 2050 from a 2010 baseline, they argued.
Emissions from international shipping fell 10% between 2007 and 2012, IMO delegates heard at the last environmental committee meeting in October 2014.
That was largely due to the financial crisis and ships running at less than full speed to save on fuel costs, explained UCL’s Smith, who co-authored the study.
With the economy picking up and oil prices low, there is no guarantee the trend will continue. Under business as usual conditions, Smith projects emissions will rise 50-250% by 2050.
A separate study by Transport & Environment and Seas At Risk earlier this month suggested ship designs had actually got less efficient in the past two decades.
Those built in 2013 were on average 10% less efficient than those built in 1990, it found. By contrast, car efficiency improved 20% over the period.
John Maggs, policy advisor at Seas At Risk and president of the Clean Shipping Coalition, said: “Now we know that we cannot rely on rising fuel prices, other market forces or the good intentions of industry to solve shipping’s climate problem.
“Instead we need a clear and ambitious target for reducing ship greenhouse gas emissions and legally binding measures to get us there.”
ICS disputed the conclusion, accusing the campaign groups of using data selectively and failing to take into account operational measures.
Smith says “there are some methodological issues” with the research, but “fundamentally, they have used such a large dataset that the general trend they are depicting does not surprise”.
The results are consistent with anecdotal evidence, he adds, that during the boom times shipyards took a “stack them high, sell them cheap” approach. Efficiency was not a priority.
Technologies are available for ships to cut their emissions, from Flettner rotors to sky sails, but with future fuel prices uncertain, companies are reluctant to invest.
“This is not an engineering problem,” says Smith. “There just needs to be the political leadership to give a clear signal it is going to pay back… The solutions are out there.”