The Much Awaited IMO Meet on Emission Cuts

(Image Courtesy: IHS Fairplay)

The hours to follow might prove to be historic as countries are meeting in an attempt to agree cuts to greenhouse gases from the global shipping industry, amid pressure on the sector to help tackle climate change. At the London meeting members of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), countries are debating the action the sector should take on the issue.

The global shipping industry accounts for around 2% to 3% of international climate emissions but if countries take the action pledged under the Paris Agreement, shipping’s share will rise to as much as a fifth by 2050. Shipping is responsible for around 2-3 of the world’s GHG emissions, about the same as Germany. However, shipping, like aviation, is not directly included in the Paris Agreement.

Instead, responsibility for cutting the emissions of these two sectors is assigned to their respective specialist United Nations (UN) agencies: the IMO and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Countries agreed an aviation deal, based on an offsetting approach, in 2016, leaving international shipping as the only sector not covered by a global deal.

Country Positions

Ahead of this week’s discussions in the IMO’s GHG “working group”, countries had the chance to offer their vision for the shipping GHG strategy. The working group will report to the more formal “Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) 72” next week, before a final agreement is decided.

The various country proposals include wildly different levels of ambition. The UK is pushing for zero emission shipping “as soon as possible”, with EU member states calling for a 70%-100% cut in greenhouse gases by 2050 compared to 2008 levels. EU member states, including the UK, have supported a “70-100 per cent” reduction on 2008 emissions by 2050, and a 90 per cent reductions in the carbon intensity of shipping.

Japan has proposed that emissions be cut to 50 per cent below 2008 levels by 2060, along with a 40 per cent improvement in ships’ fuel efficiency by 2030. Japan also includes the idea of “amendments” to the goal, pending an IMO review of its achievability at a later date.

But some Pacific island nations, such as the Marshall Islands which is threatened by rising sea levels but is also a major flag state, want emissions from shipping to fall to zero, to help keep alive the Paris Agreement pledge to pursue efforts to limit temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

The Marshall Islands, supported by some other Pacific island states, want complete decarbonisation of global shipping by 2035. (Significantly, this call comes from one of the world’s leading flag states).

Governments’ Stand

Ministers have said they want the IMO meeting to secure an “ambitious” deal that ensures international shipping does not get left behind as other sectors take action. And they said the Government was supporting the industry in the development of green technologies and fuels, which would provide opportunities for growth for UK maritime companies.

Shipping minister Nusrat Ghani said: “The eyes of the world are upon us in what is a crucial week for the future of the shipping industry and our planet. “Shipping has always been at the forefront of technological change, and needs a clear signal to invest in a zero emissions future.

“I urge all IMO member states to support the UK in its call for an ambitious and credible strategy that will open new opportunities in green technologies and fuels and ensure shipping plays its full part in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.”

Resolutions on GHG Emissions

While GHGs from shipping fall under the responsibility of the IMO, the agency is not equivalent to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in that it is responsible for regulating international shipping at large, as well as pollution from ships. Therefore, regulation of GHGs only makes up a small part of its remit.

A climate shipping deal has been long in the making. The IMO first adopted a resolution on GHG emissions in 1997, the same year the Kyoto Protocol was adopted. This protocol officially handed responsibility for marine emissions to the IMO. The industry has proposed that IMO members agree to cap emissions at 2008 levels, while some countries do not want any curbs, suggesting it would harm global trade.

A recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found maximum deployment of current known technologies, including alternative fuels, efficiency and even use of electric or wind-assisted ships, could almost completely decarbonizes the sector by 2035.

(Image Courtesy: Marine Traffic)

Possible Outcomes

Even if a cap or reduction of some kind is adopted at the IMO soon, it is not yet clear whether the final agreement will deal only with CO2 or include other GHGs. Proposals for both are still on the table. This could be an important point.

For example, liquid natural gas (LNG) is often touted as a cleaner option compared to the conventional maritime bunker fuels used in shipping, due to its lower air pollution. Its use is expected rise further in response to an IMO cap on sulphur pollution starting in 2020. But it has also been associated with large unintentional methane emissions, which could undermine its lower CO2 emissions if not kept in check.

Much of the debate at the IMO centres on how feasible it is for the shipping industry to decarbonise and how fast it is possible to do so. A combination of different measures would be the most cost-effective way to reduce shipping emissions, including renewable energy and alternative fuels such as advanced biofuels, methanol, ammonia and hydrogen. A recent report from maritime organisation Lloyds Register and UMAS, setting out the different options for zero emissions vessels by 2030, similarly showed the most suitable technology would be different for different types of ship.

This initial strategy, set to be agreed by Friday, is expected to contain a “vision statement”—an overarching aim for the strategy to achieve—some kind of quantified target and an action plan towards the revised strategy in 2023. It could also include short term measures to be implemented up to 2023. Despite being called an “initial” strategy, the deal could therefore set the boundaries and tone of climate ambition from shipping for decades to come.

(References: Merco Press, Eco-Business, Reuters, BBC)

Sea News Feature, April 12