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Green shipping: IMO's steering in stormy seas

CAN IMO agree on a realistic greenhouse gas reduction strategy?

The way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ships is the big issue this week at the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Last week saw the first meeting of the Intersessional Working Group on Reduction of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions from Ships at IMO headquarters in London. That working group, which met in a closed session, was due to report to this week's session of IMO's International Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 71).

That report will form the basis for debate as IMO tries to develops a comprehensive strategy on reduction of GHG emissions from ships, which was agreed at MEPC 70 in October last year. An initial IMO GHG strategy is set to be adopted at MEPC 72 in spring 2018, setting out possible short, mid and long-term measures with possible timelines.

Since last October, there has of course been a dramatic change in US policy towards slowing global warming. It will be interesting see what effect that will have on the deliberations at IMO. Certainly, the EU countries appear as determined as ever to force the shipping sector to adopt effective GHG reduction measures, with unilateral EU action a real possibility.

In advance of the working group's meeting, four major international trade associations - Bimco, Intercargo, ICS and Intertanko - submitted a joint proposal that IMO Member States should immediately adopt two Aspirational Objectives on behalf of the international shipping sector:

  • maintain international shipping's annual total CO2 emissions below 2008 levels; and
  • reduce CO2 emissions per tonne of cargo transported per kilometre, as an average across international shipping, by at least 50 per cent by 2050, compared to 2008.

In addition, the industry associations suggested that IMO should "give consideration to another possible objective of reducing international shipping's total annual CO2 emissions, by an agreed percentage by 2050 compared to 2008, as a point on a continuing trajectory of further CO2 emissions reduction".

The shipping industry wants IMO to remain in control of additional measures to address CO2 reduction by international shipping and to develop a global solution, rather than risk the danger of market-distorting measures at the national or regional level. Acknowledging concerns of developing nations about the possible impact of CO2 reduction for trade and sustainable development, the industry submission emphasises that any objectives adopted by IMO must not imply any commitment to place a binding cap on the sector's total CO2 emissions or on the CO2 emissions of individual ships.

The shipping industry is serious about wanting to reduce GHG emissions and progress so far at IMO should not be dismissed in the way it has been by some environmental groups. But, of course, the term Aspirational Objectives was bound to raise hackles among those who want to see ambitious and binding GHG reduction targets sooner rather than later. The initiative was criticised by a coalition of "clean shipping" groups which said that the industry was "finally sailing in the right direction on climate change but far too slowly".

Maurice Sheehan, director of global shipping operations, Carbon War Room, said: "While we commend Bimco, Intercargo, Intertanko, and ICS for publishing this statement, the objectives lack the ambition that the world expects of the shipping industry. This position effectively states that from today until 2050, overall GHG emissions levels will stay roughly where they were at their height in 2008. The Paris Agreement has set the world on a 2-degree trajectory and shipping must make goals in line with this, which equate to a 50 per cent reduction in actual annual GHG emissions by 2050, not just operational efficiency goals which fails to account for future growth in the sector. We do acknowledge the group's submissions to MEPC 71, which states that IMO should 'reduce international shipping's total CO2 emissions by an agreed percentage by 2025' and that this should be part of the strategy announced in 2018. Carbon War Room does support a total reduction target that brings shipping in line with the Paris Agreement's goals."

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) responded robustly. Simon Bennett, ICS director of policy and external relations, said: "I am never quite sure who the self-styled Carbon War Room represents, or who they think they are at war with, but our proposal does not state that the sector's total emissions should remain at 2008 levels indefinitely, we have clearly said that IMO Member States should consider a percentage by which the total CO2 from shipping should reduce by 2050. Although this would present a significant challenge, we have not ruled out a 50 per cent cut being the possible number, with further reductions thereafter. But this would have to have the support of those developing nations that have got legitimate concerns about the impact on trade and their economic development."

Meanwhile, leading shipowners and operators, classification societies, engine and technology builders and suppliers, big data providers, and oil companies have signed up to a new IMO-sponsored Global Industry Alliance (GIA) to support transitioning shipping and its related industries towards a low carbon future. The intention is that the GIA partners will collectively identify and develop innovative solutions to address common barriers to the uptake and implementation of energy efficiency technologies and operational measures.

The GIA is an example of what IMO is generally quite good at - developing practical, technical solutions to problems. Whether the IMO can put together an approach that will reconcile the competing political pressure on it this week is another matter.