UN shipping chief: Climate change is ‘top priority’

The International Maritime Organization is set to consider an emissions target in April, says newly appointed head Kitack Lim

Kitack Lim took the top IMO job on 1 January (Pic: International Maritime Organization)

Kitack Lim took the top IMO job on 1 January (Pic: International Maritime Organization)

By Megan Darby

The UN shipping body is likely to consider a greenhouse gas emissions target for the sector this spring, its newly appointed chief told Climate Home.

Kitack Lim, who took over the International Maritime Organization (IMO) from Japan’s Koji Sekimizu on 1 January, answered questions by email.

“Contributing to the fight against climate change is a top priority for IMO,” he wrote, “alongside maritime safety and security and the prevention of pollution into the marine environment from ships.”

Emissions from ships account for around 3% of the global total. This is projected to reach 6-15% by 2050 if the sector fails to act in line with national efforts.

National governments agreed in Paris last December to hold global warming “well below 2C”, or to 1.5C if possible. But the deal did not directly address international shipping, leaving that to the IMO.

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Last year, the shipping body’s environmental committee rejected a motion to start work on an emissions target. Sekimizu himself argued against capping carbon, on the basis it could constrain world trade.

But the topic is “likely” to come up again at the IMO environmental committee’s next meeting in April, according to Lim. While the decision rests with member states, he said: “I think that IMO will be able to agree on the appropriate way forward.”

Bill Hemmings, campaigner at Brussels-based NGO Transport and Environment, urged Lim to turn the committee “from a talkshop to a forum for action”.

“No sector can continue emitting at the rate of growth of either shipping or aviation without completely jeopardising the 1.5 degree – and earlier 2 degree – target,” he said.

“Lazy efforts won’t cut it. In short, the time for business as usual at the IMO is over and in that sense the arrival of the new secretary general is met with great anticipation.”

Shipping and aviation: Missing pieces in the climate puzzle

Progress in greening the global fleet has been slow, despite the existence of cost-effective fuel-saving technology, according to think tank the New Climate Economy.

Asked about the biggest obstacles to cutting ship emissions, Lim identified commercial and technical barriers.

IMO is prioritising two initiatives to help developing countries deliver on energy efficiency regulations: GloMEEP, a partnership with the Global Environment Facility and UN development body, and a €10 million global network of technology centres funded by the European Commission.

“Through these activities, and others, IMO will be helping to transfer know-how to those countries that need it,” Lim said. “This, increasingly, will be the Organization’s focus in the future, as IMO looks to play a leading role in the drive towards a sustainable maritime sector.”

Tristan Smith, shipping and climate change expert at UCL, cautiously welcomed these first steps.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day and shipping’s challenging transition and inevitable decarbonisation won’t occur as a result of two projects,” he told Climate Home.

“But we need to start somewhere and the secretary general’s recognition of the need to address developing world capacity and technology is important.”

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