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Rocking the boat on shipping emissions

Image: Joseph Barrientos, Unsplash

This week’s talks at the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) must chart a speedy and ambitious course towards zero-emissions shipping. 

Today (22 November), the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) hit the waves again – but, this time, with potential rays of hope on the horizon. Momentum is building to actually address the climate pollution caused by the shipping industry, but IMO needs to move faster to catch up on the delays caused by those seeking to continue to rely on fossil fuels.

The previous session of the MEPC in June ended in acrimony, with little to no progress to show for a week of sluggishly slow virtual negotiations (except for painful technical difficulties making it even harder for less developed countries to get their voices heard, even if they are and will continue to be the hardest hit by the climate breakdown). 

The June session’s main outcome was a totally insufficient agreement on climate measures up to 2030. The target to increase energy efficiency by 1.5% annually is too distant from the 7% yearly improvement needed for the IMO’s short-term measures to be compatible with the Paris Agreement. In addition, there is no enforcement mechanism and a level of aspiration not compatible with IMO-agreed climate targets.

Despite the United States, the EU and several others pushing for more ambitious targets, progress was stymied by climate laggards; such as Argentina and the Cook Islands (the latter’s negotiator has received hundreds of thousands of euros to represent an industry lobby group). Moreover, several key climate topics (such as black carbon) were just skipped altogether. 

Ray of hope

While COP26 itself did not lead to any substantial progress on shipping emissions, on the sidelines some major shipping players (companies AND countries) made several major announcements that show support for tackling the climate impacts of this sector is mounting:

  1. A declaration on zero-emission shipping by 2050 was sent out by 14 countries (including such economic and shipping heavyweights as the US, Panama, Denmark, France, Germany, the UK and the Marshall Islands) who pledged to push IMO towards adopting a zero GHG target for international shipping by 2050.
  2. The Call to Action for Shipping Decarbonisation was released by 200 companies and organisations, spanning giants in shipping, energy, banking and ports. It urges the sector to achieve zero emissions by 2050, and undertake substantial action on deploying zero-carbon ships by 2030, including through carbon pricing and without carbon offsetting.
  3. The signatories of the Clydebank Declaration (22 countries, including many of the signatories of the zero-emission shipping by 2050 declaration) promise to work together to create decarbonised green shipping corridors between their ports. Six of these should be up and running by the middle of the decade.
  4. Nearly 50 members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum called on the IMO to put a levy on carbon emissions from the shipping sector in place, and to use the revenues to support the climate transition (especially in vulnerable developing countries).

One tool that would help bring all these declarations and calls to fruition would be a strong international carbon pricing tool at the IMO – a so-called market-based measure (MBM)

All hands on deck

Discussions on MBMs made some progress back in June. However, too much time was wasted on work plans without a clear outcome and the toothless and absurd International Maritime Research Board’s (IMRB)  proposal that would only lead to a cost of $0.70 per tonne of greenhouse gas pollution, which is approximately 100 times cheaper per tonne of carbon than the EU’s current carbon price. This week’s talks will see those negotiations continue, hopefully building up speed in the coming weeks – including on the Marshall and Solomon Islands’ more ambitious proposal of a $100 per tonne levy. 

But what makes a market-based mechanism a good one? Carbon Market Watch submitted a paper to the IMO (together with our partners in the Clean Shipping Coalition) highlighting exactly which principles an IMO MBM has to live up to. In short, it must:

  1. Decrease climate pollution from ships as soon as possible in this decade, and bridge the price gap between fossil and zero-carbon sustainable fuels 
  2. Bring the shipping sector in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target, and help reach a zero-GHG shipping sector by 2050 
  3. Use revenues wisely to support countries most at risk from climate change, and countries and workers most dependent on shipping, as well as invest in decarbonising the sector by supporting research and infrastructure development 
  4. Be implemented quickly without pilot phases to avoid further delays in global action 
  5. Exclude offsets, free allocations or generous exemptions that would let polluters off the hook – the atmosphere cannot be cheated, and attempting to do so would be folly
  6. Complement and not undermine more ambitious climate regulations internationally, nationally or regionally. The solution to the shipping climate crisis lies in action at all levels and cannot be left to any single organisation or process 

Good proposals meeting those principles must be fast-tracked if the shipping industry is to make a meaningful contribution to tackling the climate crisis. At present, a sense of urgency is lacking throughout many of the IMO countries’ delegations, and the maritime industry needs to urgently set sail on a more daring course. A mandatory and ambitious carbon levy, where revenues are used for climate justice and re-invested in innovation and putting climate-neutral ships on the water could be key for success in an industry that is at risk of becoming rudderless and crashing against the rocks of destructive climate inaction.


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