Marshall Islands fires broadside at UN shipping chief over climate stance

Soaring maritime emissions threaten world prosperity and survival, argues minister Tony de Brum in rebuttal to IMO

Shipping accounts for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Flickr/Derell Licht)

Shipping accounts for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Flickr/Derell Licht)

By Megan Darby

The Marshall Islands has hit out at the UN’s shipping regulator over its response to the sector’s contribution to climate change.

Koji Sekimuzi, head of the International Maritime Organization, is warning against a cap on greenhouse gas emissions on the basis it would harm world trade.

In a rebuttal penned by foreign minister Tony de Brum, the Marshall Islands accused the UN chief of misusing the evidence and endangering the planet.

De Brum wrote: “His [Sekimuzi’s] call is not just a danger to the planet, but as the research points out, also to the shipping industry’s future prosperity, and therefore the future stability of the world trade.

“Of great alarm is the secretary general’s misuse, or at least misunderstanding, of the evidence base on shipping and its GHG pollution.”

Marshall Islands open letter to International Maritime Organization

It is the latest salvo in a clash between a nation acutely vulnerable to climate impacts and a little-scrutinised UN forum.

As a low-lying collection of atolls in the Pacific Ocean, the Marshall Islands face an existential threat from sea level rise caused by global warming. As the world’s third largest shipping registry, its economy is highly dependent on the maritime sector.

The IMO, on the other hand, is a regulatory body dominated by industry voices that has done little to curb emissions from international waters – its exclusive domain.

In May, de Brum made an emotive plea for a sector-wide target at the IMO headquarters in London. It was swiftly dismissed.

The evidence

In the debate, both sides refer to a study commissioned by the IMO.

That study found international shipping’s share of emissions fell from 2.8% to 2.2% from 2007-2012, Sekimuzi pointed out.

He neglected to mention future projections, retorted de Brum, which forecast emissions rising 50-250% by 2050.

With national governments cracking down on emissions, shipping’s share of the global total could go as high as 15%.

“The evidence is that the sector is on a diametrically opposed path to the rest of the global economy,” wrote de Brum, in “a growing danger to the planet’s prosperity and survival”.

Tristan Smith, UCL academic and co-author of the study, told Climate Home it was being “celebrated for precisely the wrong reasons”.

Advocates were “using recent market-driven reductions in GHG as a sign of progress in the industry, and ignoring the risk of the reversal of this trend,” he said.

Economic impacts

There is less research available on the impact regulations would have on world trade.

A 2010 study by Vision Economics modelled the impact of a potential 10% levy on bunker fuel used by ships. The most significant knock-on effect it found was a 1.5% price increase in the Chinese iron ore market. For oil, grain and clothing the price effects were significantly less than 1%.

Those impacts would be dwarfed by the dynamics of oil, shipping and product markets, it concluded.

More recently, the influential New Climate Economy think tank argued there were many cost effective opportunities to improve fuel efficiency of ships.

“Increasing shipping efficiency would reduce fuel costs, with large economic benefits, while curbing the sector’s fast-rising GHG emissions,” analysts wrote. “However, progress in shipping efficiency has been slow to date, because of various market failures.”

They recommended initiatives to give more transparency on efficiency data, coupled with an emissions target.

UCL’s Smith added: “Ignoring the clear messages in the science now – that shipping is on the wrong track and not moving fast enough to correct this – could have serious consequences on the industry and demand (world trade) in the future.”

Report: UN releases 20-page negotiating text for climate deal

In Paris this December, 195 countries are set to finalise a deal aiming to limit global warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels.

It only covers emissions within national borders, with the latest draft agreement omitting all mention of international aviation and shipping.

That leaves it to the IMO to cover the high seas. At present, it is mired in discussion over collecting fuel efficiency data for ships, with any regulation a distant prospect.

De Brum urged climate negotiators in Paris to “deliver the strongest possible directive to the IMO” to swiftly set a target.

Read more on: Shipping | UN climate talks