Time to set sail for shipping climate action

After 20 years of procrastination, shipping sector is finally discussing a strategy to address its emissions that represent almost 3% of global greenhouse gasses. As the UN shipping body meets in London next week, ‘Paris spirit’ is needed to spur action in the sector.

©Flickr/ steeedm

Summer 2017 – the UN shipping body, the International Maritime Organization  (IMO) is talking a bit more seriously about climate, it is now time to set sail.

Unlike aviation, shipping was once a carbon free mode of transport, but it is now responsible for almost 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and for even more of global warming if you include the effect of the black carbon emitted. Although the global shipping industry currently has an overcapacity of ships and comparatively little cargo to move, shipping’s emissions could grow by up to 250% by 2050.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol asked parties to address shipping emissions through the IMO, but 20 years later little has been done. At least since the “Paris moment” of global climate action, the industry has been under increasing pressure to act. As a result, the IMO has agreed to come up with a comprehensive climate strategy between now and 2023.

It has taken too long to get here, and the IMO needs to turn it up a knot. However, when discussing targets, it makes sense to start with a better idea of what the actual emissions are. To this effect, the IMO has agreed to start collecting information on ships’ fuel use beginning in 2018.

Although most countries don’t include emissions from international shipping in their climate pledges under the Paris Agreement these emissions are clearly man-made and therefore covered by the Paris deal. The countries sitting in the IMO are the same countries who have signed up to the Paris Agreement, but many have not yet adopted consistent policies and positions in these UN institutions.

Various options for more climate friendly shipping

There are many options to decarbonize shipping and many paths to zero emissions by 2050, but quick decisions and actions are needed. With lifespans of as much as 30 years, ships commissioned today will still be around by mid century.

Far from having to go back to hoisting sails (although one could and it is being investigated), ships already have a number of zero-emission vessel concepts incorporating various technologies: ships could be built more efficiently, they could be electrified and/or use alternative fuels. The solution probably lies in some combination thereof.

In recognition of shipping’s role in fighting climate change, the IMO will hold an intersessional working group meeting the last week of June, to be continued with a meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) the first week of July. Whatever strategy or kind of target they go for will be just as important as taking action now: the world can’t afford to have continued investment in dirty ships. Countries also need to include shipping’s climate plans in the Paris stocktake process which starts next year with the facilitative dialogue.

Carbon Market Watch will be in London next week – hoping to see the spirit of Paris continue as the IMO lays out its climate plans.