Climate talks for shipping ‘on a knife-edge’ as deadline looms

A draft text would see shipping halve its carbon footprint by 2050, but experts say that falls short of the Paris Agreement goals

(Flickr/Derell Licht)


Talks on a climate target for international shipping looked fragile on Friday, with countries deeply divided a week before the deadline.

Campaigners warned the draft level of ambition at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) meeting was out of line with the Paris Agreement goal to hold global warming “well below 2C” and aim for 1.5C.

A negotiating text circulated on Friday morning proposed to cut the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions “at least 50%” from 2008 levels by 2050.

That falls short of the 70-100% reduction European and Pacific island states say is needed to align with the Paris pact. Yet the very inclusion of an absolute emission reduction target is controversial with countries like Brazil, India and Saudi Arabia, who have raised concerns about the impact on trade and development.

“The talks are on a knife-edge,” Tristan Smith, clean shipping expert at UCL said at a press conference with Pacific island leaders on the sidelines. “There is no guarantee that these people’s countries are safe and there is no guarantee that the Paris Agreement goals are safe either.”

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Speaking in a bar on a boat outside IMO headquarters, representatives of the Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu emphasised the importance of the deal to their countries. As small island states, they are vulnerable to sea level rise and intensifying tropical storms that come with climate change.

Marshall Islands is also responsible for the world’s second largest shipping registry, giving it extra leverage in IMO negotiations.

“We are really at a crossroads today,” said David Paul, environment minister of the Marshall Islands. “Whatever is reached here at the IMO in the next seven days is going to be very crucial for our survival and to keep the promise of the Paris Agreement. The Marshall Islands will never accept any deal that will undermine our commitment to the Paris Agreement, which is the 1.5C target.”

International transport is not explicitly covered by the Paris Agreement, which is based on national commitments. But shipping has a carbon footprint the size of Germany’s and will affect the chances of averting dangerous climate change.

The sector’s share of global emissions will rise to around 10% by 2050, Smith calculates, under the IMO’s proposed 50% cut and a “well below 2C” scenario. If negotiators were only to agree on a weaker target in the draft to cut carbon intensity by 70%, shipping’s emissions share would potentially grow to 25%.

Christiana Figueres, former UN climate chief and architect of the Paris Agreement, spoke to media on the embankment of the River Thames.

“The discussion inside the building is: how does the decarbonisation of the maritime transport industry catch up with the rest of the industries,” she said, citing the rapid growth of renewable electricity. “There was quite a bit of progress today, at least at the technical level. Already, you can see growing understanding among all governments that this is not only a burden, as it used to be understood, but it is an opportunity.”

Asked about resistance to ambitious cuts, she said countries may be wary of committing to targets before they could see the technology pathway to get there. That was also the case with national pledges to the Paris Agreement, which are not – yet – collectively enough to meet its temperature goals.

“Decarbonisation is a physical process, but it is also a political process,” said Figueres. “This is a first step.”

The IMO is due to follow its initial climate strategy next week with a fuller policy package in 2023, by which time Figueres suggested clean technology will have improved.

Minister Paul said the IMO had already come a long way in its understanding of climate change. “Two years ago, decarbonisation was a foreign concept at the IMO. Today they are talking about it. We can never lose hope.”

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