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Countries flirt with maritime decarbonization deadline

After two weeks of testing and occasionally fiery negotiations at the International Maritime Organization, one sentence emerged as a potential sign of progress.

"The IMO is committed to the decarbonization of shipping by the second half of the century," read a line proposed by the Bahamas as a potential goal for the sector.

It's by no means official IMO policy yet, but aside from vocal opposition from Saudi Arabia and Brazil , it won support from the vast majority of countries at the talks.

"There is large support for a vision for emissions reductions from the sector to be developed in order to send a strong signal from IMO to stakeholders," said Marshall Islands transport minister Mike Halferty, who voiced his backing for the target.

"We have seen more nuanced positions of countries than before. We developed a good dialogue during this session and I'm optimistic for the future," added Belgium's state secretary for the North Sea, Philippe De Backer.

That the Bahamas proposal was greeted warmly is significant. It suggests that most governments are willing to set the shipping sector a deadline of 33 years to clean up its act.

It is significant too because the average lifetime of a ship is around 25-30 years, meaning the incoming generation of vessels could be the last to spend their days chugging on dirty marine heavy fuel oil, which has the consistency of bitumen and emits high levels of air pollutants.

Unlike the Paris Agreement, built upon voluntary benchmarks, specific measures embraced by the International Maritime Organization would command global enforcement.

Still, there is a danger of giving the good ship IMO too much of a free pass, patching over its rusty exterior and slow progress on delivering sector-wide carbon cuts by citing a line.

This, after all, is a body which predicts emissions could rise 50-250 percent by mid-century — well above the 2 to 3 percent of greenhouse gases it currently emits and enough to blow the Paris Agreement's 1.5 degrees Celsius target sky high.

The IMO already has a mixed record on other environmental issues. For instance, the ballast water convention was agreed in 2004 but an implementation date slipped to 2019.

"No deal of substance" was the polite phrase used by industry tome Lloyds List to describe the meeting as it concluded.

In truth, the talks delivered very little. The U.N. body published a "draft outline of the structure of the initial strategy," which ran to a whopping seven lines.

They effectively agreed on the titles to a series of columns on a spreadsheet, leaving to the next meeting the onerous task of filling in the blanks.

"It is clear that much more rapid progress will need to be made at the second working group in October in order to deliver the initial strategy by 2018, as agreed," Halferty said.

NGOs at the talks urged faster progress. Bill Hemmings at Transport & Environment bemoaned a "lack of urgency"; John Maggs with Seas at Risk called for a "shift up in gear."

With two rounds of talks to go before a proposed 2018 interim climate deal for shipping is due to land, there's not so much as a draft text packed with proposals to speak of.

Deep divisions remain between developed and developing countries — echoes of U.N. climate talks of old — with Brazil, India and China holding out against tougher regulations on shipping.

Due to draconian reporting restrictions at the IMO, it's impossible to present a detailed analysis of individual positions, but it's evident from submissions where dividing lines remain.

EU and Pacific nations are calling on the IMO to fix its gaze on a carbon target in line with temperature rises well below 2 C; emerging economies want financial support to do that.

Countries are also acutely aware that shipping carries 80 percent of global trade, so any new regulations that affect the freight-carrying fleet likely will have long lead times.

Yet off record, and away from the microphone, delegates talk of a new spirit of cooperation, with even the International Chamber of Shipping — long a bastion for laggards — talking ambition.

"I think we really need to capitalize on the message about alternative and zero carbon fuels which is coming out in all the papers," said one EU delegate on condition of anonymity. "There's real momentum and we need to get it communicated."

To that end, keep an eye on Yara and Hurtigruten, both working on zero-emission and hybrid vessels due to launch in 2018. The "Teslas of the seas" is perhaps an exaggeration, but not much.

Few at IMO doubt the industry is feeling the glare from the rest of the world — well aware it's the last major sector to offer a contribution to tackling climate change.

And as PwC partner Jon Williams argued in a commentary in Lloyds List last week, shipping has entered a new era of climate risk disclosure, whether it likes it or not.

The appearance of four ministers from Pacific Island nations is another sign of progress, injecting real world politics into the IMO's cozy technocratic and business-dominated cartel.

Expect sparks to fly at the next meeting in October, where countries will dig into the meat of a shipping CO2 deal and actually start detailing timelines and policy options.

According to the International Energy Agency, the level of efficiency gains in the sector must be more than doubled year-on-year for it to make even a basic contribution towards limiting warming to below 2 C.

That will require far more investment in low/zero carbon fuels, sleeker ships and a strong policy signal from governments about total decarbonization.

Don't forget: unlike the Paris Agreement, built upon voluntary benchmarks and expectation of country-level legally binding measures, IMO is aiming to stipulate specific measures and enforcement that will have global coverage.

Ships that don't meet the standards of an IMO treaty can be denied entry to port, fined and have their licenses to operate removed.

If you've ever wondered how the U.N. would fare corralling all its members — rich and poor — into a legally binding climate pact, pop down to the IMO in October.

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