Tensions High as Nations Meet to Set Climate Plan for Global Shipping

The International Maritime Organization is under pressure to finalize long-delayed targets to reduce carbon emissions from the growing shipping industry. But governments remain divided on how aggressive to be in fighting climate change.

Written by Jessica Leber Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
The shipping industry currently accounts for 2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but that percentage could more than double if business continues as usual.Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is facing a looming deadline to adopt a climate change plan for the shipping industry – the only sector of the global economy that has yet to commit to specific targets to slash its greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations-chartered organization that regulates international shipping is facing pressure to act this month, but key member nations are still far apart on how ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals should be and how to achieve them.

“You can already feel the tension,” said Faig Abbasov, shipping officer at Transport & Environment, a coalition of European environmental groups that promotes sustainable shipping policies. The gathering of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee from April 9–13 in London could be one the agency’s most important meetings in a decade, he said.

“Never before has a meeting generated such great interest,” IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim of South Korea said on Tuesday in prepared remarks. On the same day, a small group of protesters gathered outside the organization’s London headquarters, urging the IMO not to “sink Paris,” the 2015 global climate accord.

International shipping, which transports more than 80 percent of global trade, accounts for around 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions – about the same level as Germany, the world’s seventh largest emitter. But shipping emissions could grow by 50–250 percent by 2050 if business as usual continues, the IMO estimates. Without a “fair share” of carbon reductions from shipping, environmentalists argue it would be difficult to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement’s target of keeping global temperature rise to within 1.5–2 degrees Celsius.

The meeting comes as the anti-corruption organization Transparency International criticized the IMO in a report issued on Tuesday. In its analysis of the IMO’s governance, the nonprofit concluded that undue industry influence in the organization has the potential to undermine its ability to impose emissions limits. Shipping and aviation are the only two sectors that don’t fall within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – and it has been 20 years since the IMO was assigned to separately handle the shipping sector, with little action to show for it, the report noted.

Ships transport more than 80 percent of global trade, and developing nations worry that added costs to reduce carbon emissions will hurt their economies. (SANKA VIDANAGAMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Governments adopted an aviation-specific emissions reduction plan in 2016, but the IMO has yet to take similar action for shipping. (It did, however, mandate energy-efficient designs for new ships in 2011.) Two years ago, IMO promised to set an initial strategy with general greenhouse gas reduction goals by 2018 and a revised one, with concrete plans for how they will be achieved, by 2023. But if it doesn’t form a climate plan, the European Union has pledged to regulate the industry on its own.

The fear of piecemeal regulation or intervention by UNFCCC has shipping companies joining climate activists in pushing for an approved text at the April meeting. The major goals will be for nations to agree on language around a “vision” for decarbonizing shipping and to set time frames for reductions, along with a list of candidate short- and long-term strategies, such as carbon pricing, that could achieve the targets. (The committee will also consider several other environmental issues, such as a ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic Ocean, where spills are a significant pollution risk.)

Negotiators are conferring this week to try to iron out as many disagreements as possible before the committee meets on Monday. The IMO’s Lim said that postponing the initial climate strategy “should not be an option.” The shipping industry, though, fears that this could happen if none of several competing proposals receives enough support.

“The worst-case scenario is we have no agreement,” said Kathy Metcalf, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Shipping of America, which represents U.S.-based companies that own, operate or charter shipping vessels. “We have got to get this done. That’s my going-in statement right there. It’s time. I think there’s a good chance that a compromise will be able to be found.”

A briefing document prepared for members of the European Parliament identified some of the key issues to be negotiated: emissions reduction targets; the actions to be taken before 2023; and how to divvy up responsibility for achieving those targets. The latter issue could prove to be a major stumbling block.

The most ambitious proposals to reduce emissions are supported by European Union nations and several small Pacific island states threatened by rising seas. That coalition is pushing for emissions reductions of 70–100 percent by 2050 compared to 2008 levels. Those nations also want a commitment to more immediate measures – such as imposing speed limits on ships that could reduce emissions now, rather than waiting for new technologies to come online.

Activists demonstrate outside the IMO headquarters in London in 2010. The agency has been debating climate actions for years. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

A recent study suggested that the full decarbonization of the shipping industry is possible relatively quickly with the right incentives in place. The report by the International Transport Forum, a global think-tank that is part of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that shipping could reach near-zero emissions by 2035. How? Through the “maximum deployment” of current technologies, such as advanced biofuels, synthetic fuels and energy-efficiency measures.

A number of countries, including China, Brazil, India, Argentina and Saudi Arabia, have opposed aggressive commitments, along with smaller nations whose export-based economies are dependent on shipping and could be hurt by higher shipping costs. Some of these nations, such as Panama, are among the handful of “flag states” that register much of the world’s shipping fleet.

Those countries generally want to avoid cuts to total shipping emissions by a specific date and instead support measures that will reduce emissions per mile traveled and per ton of cargo. But with global trade projected to grow, such targets could still result in an overall rise in the industry’s emissions if they aren’t aggressive enough, according to an analysis by Transport & Environment. (The Marshall Islands, home to the world’s second-largest ship registry but also facing existential threats from sea-level rise, is a notable exception. It is among nations seeking total decarbonization by mid-century.)

A big issue for China and other countries is how developing nations will contribute to emissions reductions or be shielded from the costs. Developed nations are the source of most of the world’s historical carbon emissions and typically bear responsibility for financially helping developing nations that suffer the brunt of climate change impacts. But the IMO usually treats ships from all nations equally to discourage shipping companies from simply registering with governments that have the lowest environmental standards.

A third possibility is a proposal put forward by Japan, one of the world’s major shipbuilding nations, to reduce the carbon output per mile and ton by 40 percent by 2030, and total emissions by at least 50 percent before 2060 from 2008 levels. Metcalf notes that this kind of target is ambitious enough to require the industry to adopt new low-carbon technologies. In March, the International Chamber of Shipping backed Japan’s proposal as a potential compromise, especially with China showing more flexibility than it has in the past.

Marshall Islands officials blamed climate change for severe flooding of its capital in 2014. Concern about rising seas has led the Pacific island nation to push for aggressive climate change measures at the IMO’s meeting this month in London. (GIFF JOHNSON/AFP/Getty Images)

“China in particular seems to have made a real effort to move away from its previous opposition to establishing CO2 reduction goals for the sector’s total emissions,” Esben Poulsson, chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping, said in a statement. “If E.U. nations want a global agreement they should acknowledge this by similarly modifying their own position.”

Abbasov of Transport & Environment, which argues Japan’s proposal doesn’t go far enough to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, blasted the compromise statement as “cynical” and “at odds with scientific evidence showing that the sector can fully decarbonize” by 2050.

In an email, Tristan Smith, a University College London shipping and energy researcher, said Japan’s proposal would “be very hard to defend” because it would still leave shipping emissions at the level Canada emits today.

“The IMO’s agreement needs to be aligned with Paris’ temperature goals, and the evidence is that means net zero emissions by 2060,” he said. His research has concluded that 100 percent decarbonization by 2050 is achievable, but it could cost at least $100 per ton of carbon, and zero emissions fuels will need to scale up quickly over the next 15 years.

Another unknown is the Trump administration, which has not supported the Paris Agreement and which has not so far taken a public position on the IMO talks. Experts say the U.S. could simply stay silent, but that may be harder to do if the E.U. wants to compromise and accept that developing nations could be treated differently – an issue called “common but differentiated responsibilities,” or CBDR, in U.N. parlance.

“They can silently accept a target, but they cannot silently accept a CBDR compromise between developed and developing nations,” said Abbasov, noting that E.U. negotiators “don’t want Trump to be tweeting and kind of starting a new trade war in the middle of the IMO climate negotiations.”

John Silk, the Marshall Islands’ foreign minister, tweeted at the IMO in November. (Twitter)

The April meeting aims only to set broad goals, which can be revisited over the next five years and when a final strategy is set in 2023. Any target set this month could be made more ambitious later, said Metcalf. But Abbasov argues the opposite: It is easier to review and ratchet down an overly ambitious goal than go in the other direction.

The Transparency International report suggests reasons why that may be. It found that the world’s top five flag states – Panama, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, Malta and the Bahamas – contribute more than 40 percent of the agency’s budget, and that IMO policies do not sufficiently guard against undue influence. It also said that industry employees have dominated some national delegations, the IMO restricts what journalists can report from its meetings and there is no transparent process for choosing committee leaders.

IMO spokesperson Natasha Brown said the organization had no comment on the report; however, she did note that while it’s true that funding from member states is largely based on tonnage shipped, it still is “one member, one vote” and that committee chairs are also decided by a simple vote, “usually by consensus.” The makeup of delegations, she noted, is decided by each member state.

The Marshall Islands is a case in point of how industry interests may dominate a national delegation. Climate Home News reported that the nation’s foreign minister arrived at an IMO meeting in 2015 to find that the country’s delegation was already being represented by employees of a private ship registry company headquartered in the U.S. Marshall Islands-based negotiators have since taken more control of the nation’s interests at the IMO and have pushed hard on climate goals. “We will not compromise on our survival,” John Silk, the Marshall Islands’ current foreign minister, tweeted at the IMO in November.

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