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Green groups urge UN to raise climate ambition on global shipping

The latest IMO talks are courting controversy, with green groups warning current proposals setting out how the sector can deliver its 2030 decarbonization target fall far short of global climate goals.

Containers on a loading dock

The global shipping industry's decarbonization efforts once again face stormy seas.

Ahead of the latest crucial round of talks this week at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), green groups are warning proposals are "an empty shell" that will have a negligible impact on the sector's emissions. Seasoned observers fear that growing calls for a bolder and more ambitious global policy framework are continuing to founder on the rocks of vested interests and short-term cost concerns. 

IMO member states are meeting this week for critical talks to discuss how the carbon-intensive shipping industry can be regulated to meet its 2030 climate target of reducing its carbon emissions intensity by 40 percent compared to 2008 levels. While the target was set two years ago, the latest talks are where the member states are expected to agree on how to enforce it, before the proposals are moved forward to committee stage in November.

A joint proposal from 15 major shipping nations and influential industry group the International Chamber of Shipping is to form the basis of the discussions, yet green groups have slammed the proposals as a "low ambition" plan that could have disastrous implications for the sector's chances of falling into line with the overarching global goals set out in the Paris Agreement.

The frontrunning proposal, sponsored by France, Germany and Japan, has come under fire due to a recommendation that stringent enforcement of operational efficiency regulations is introduced no earlier than 2029. And despite warnings from climate scientists that the IMO's 2030 carbon-intensity target is insufficient to meet global climate goals — it has been rated by Climate Action Tracker as "critically insufficient" and aligned with a potentially devastating global temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius — the plan does not recommend the industry aim for sharper emissions reductions.

Faïg Abbasov, head of shipping at campaign group Transport & Environment, told BusinessGreen the proposal was "essentially an empty shell." "To achieve 1.5 degrees [of warming] we need to decarbonize by the mid-2030s," he explained. "To achieve 2 degrees we need to decarbonize by mid-century. This proposal goes nowhere near that level."

To achieve 1.5 degrees [of warming] we need to decarbonize by the mid-2030s. To achieve 2 degrees we need to decarbonize by mid-century. This proposal goes nowhere near that level.

While green groups contend that the proposed plan in fact will undermine the shipping sector's already-weak climate targets, the joint proposal's sponsors argue the agreement represents a major step forward for a historically fractured industry that has spent much of the past decade delaying and diluting more ambitious proposals. BusinessGreen understands that advocates of the plan will argue that it balances the need to act fast to reduce the sector's climate impact and the need to give industry time to adjust as regulators work out how to calculate and regulate operational efficiency, a measurement that is more difficult to define than a ship's technical efficiency due to its being affected by weather conditions.

The dispute is the latest in a long history of quarrels between environmentalists and the IMO, the United Nations agency charged with the regulation of a global shipping industry that operates largely outside and between national jurisdictions. With many nation states choosing to keep international shipping outside their domestic climate targets, the onus falls on the London-based agency to set the pace and direction of decarbonization efforts. But while a growing number of nations and shipping operators have stepped up calls for a more ambitious global policy regime, any attempts to introduce robust new regulations through the IMO have tended to be thwarted by those countries that fear the financial impact on their shipping industry from new emissions standards or carbon pricing regimes. It is a dynamic that has left environmental campaigners increasingly frustrated. 

Last week, Transport & Environment's Abbasov warned that the regulatory framework set to be discussed this week could perhaps "bend" growth of carbon emissions in the shipping sector by mid-century but would "not be able to stop it."

Aerial view of a container ship

Transport & Environment is one of a number of green groups, including Carbon Market Watch, Seas at Risk and Ocean Conservancy, to have written to the Secretary General of the United Nations in early October to warn of the short-term policy measures being cooked up by member states ahead of the meeting. "It is not the job of the United Nations to protect vested fossil fuel interests," they wrote in a letter seen by BusinessGreen. "It is the job of the United Nations to protect people and planet from the ravages of runaway global heating."

The NGOs, united as the Clean Shipping Coalition, warned that if robust enforcement of operational emissions standards is delayed to 2029, the IMO will fail to meet a number of the stated aims contained in its own landmark 2018 greenhouse gas reduction strategy, namely to achieve significant additional CO2 reductions "before 2023," ensure emissions emissions peak "as soon as possible" and deliver a carbon dioxide reduction pathway in line with the Paris goals.

Furthermore, they stressed that civil society organizations had not been invited to the private meetings where member states and the shipping industry had hashed out the plan, and that a separate proposal submitted by green groups earlier this year which set out how the industry could reach a more ambitious 80 percent reduction in carbon intensity emissions by 2030 had been omitted from the document.

Campaigners maintain that stronger ambition is required given that the 2030 target the IMO is working towards — a 40 percent reduction in carbon-intensity emissions — is not aligned with the Paris Agreement in the first place. They argue that, with the existing 2030 commitment already three-quarters met purely through the trend for slower speeds and bigger ships, there is a huge opportunity for the industry to raise its ambition at the informal meetings take place next week.

But industry players counter that the current proposals are plenty robust enough, pointing out that under the proposals new technical efficiency standards for ships will be enforced immediately, as will plans to introduce a new mandatory operational efficiency rating system, where ships are rated on an A to E grading system that should subject poor-efficiency ships to the power of the market.

"The fact that we are so close to a consensus among IMO members states is a huge step in the right direction," Simon Bennett, deputy secretary general at the International Chamber of Shipping, told BusinessGreen.  

Bennett also argued the total decarbonization of the shipping sector ultimately would rely on technological innovation. "These measures will be legally binding and an important step towards our goal of full decarbonization of the shipping sector," he said. "We know more can be done and what we do must work in practice as well as in writing. If we're to achieve a truly global solution to the total decarbonization of world shipping, then radical, innovative technological solutions must be found over the next decade."

But Transport & Environment's Abbasov warned that a low-ambition regulatory framework agreed on this week could have negative implications for shipping policy for decades to come. "It will set a wrong precedent that adopting cosmetic measures or low-ambition measures are okay, and anything in the future will probably forward the same path," he stressed. "It will set a domino effect that is extremely, extremely dangerous."

While the final shape of the proposals to be agreed by member states remains to be seen, Abbasov and ICS agreed that it was likely to not stray far from scenarios contained in the draft document. As such, attention is likely to quickly turn to alternative avenues for accelerating the development and adoption of the lower-carbon shipping technologies and practices that remain in the pipeline.

As Abbasov argues, if IMO member states decide to endorse the current proposal and send it to the committee stage, then the onus will fall more than ever on regional national governments to set regulatory standards that catalyse decarbonization progress across shipping sector. With more than one quarter of the global economy committed to achieving net-zero emissions over the coming decades, it follows that the shipping sector will be under increased pressure from governments and private players to clean up its act.

In some quarters, these dynamics already seem to be at work, with oil major Shell calling on the IMO last month to adopt more ambitious climate targets for 2030, 2040 and 2050 as it published its new sustainable shipping strategy.

However, the IMO always has been the subject of fierce lobbying from the shipping and other industry bodies, and it is unclear to what extent corporate net zero commitments are being matched by behind-the-scenes advocacy arguing against more ambitious rules and regulations. Reports from InfluenceMap and Transparency International have explored how some industry groups historically have lobbied to obstruct meaningful climate change action in the shipping sector, and green groups have alleged that vested fossil fuel interests continue to play an oversized role in IMO negotiations. 

That said, there is growing evidence that some businesses are looking to provide a counterweight to those lobbyists pushing for a more relaxed regulatory regime. When asked by BusinessGreen about what outcome they would hope to see out of the latest round of talks and whether they would support more ambitious targets from the IMO, representatives from businesses with high profile net-zero commitments emphasized the need to decarbonize their supply chains, even if they largely declined to comment on the agency's specific plans.

If we're to achieve a truly global solution to the total decarbonization of world shipping, then radical, innovative technological solutions must be found over the next decade.

A spokesperson from IKEA stressed that ocean shipping made up 40 percent of the carbon footprint of its supply chain operations and therefore the company's pledge to reduce the carbon footprint of all transport by an average of 70 percent by 2030 compared to 2017 was a "huge ambition." Meanwhile, Apple said it planned to reduce its carbon impact from shipping by leveraging fleet improvements, sustainable fuels and supply chain efficiencies, while explaining that it planned to prioritize shipping over aviation as a low-carbon form of product transport as it worked to meet a net-zero supply chain commitment.

A statement provided by Shell welcomed signs that some form of new regulatory regime was on the way. "Achieving net-zero emissions shipping by 2050 is vitally important — and that means ambitious regulation coming into effect in 2023 will be required," said Grahaeme Henderson, Shell's global head of shipping and maritime. "It is encouraging to see a consolidated proposal on carbon intensity and energy-efficiency measures on the agenda for IMO discussions next week to progress towards that goal."

As the U.K. government gears up to host critical COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in 2021 and repeatedly asserts its world-leading climate reputation as it attempts to steer a green recovery from the coronavirus, it could be argued that the U.K. has a role to play in pushing for the highest possible ambition at this week's talks.

When questioned about what outcome the U.K. would support from the talks, a spokesperson from the Department for Transport emphasized the government was committed to delivering a decarbonized shipping sector. "Shipping emissions require a global solution, and we will work with our international partners through the IMO to achieve a greener, zero emissions future for the shipping sector," they said.

The U.K. government has broadly committed to working with other IMO member states to "raise the ambition" of the IMO's climate targets at a five-year review of the original 2018 IMO GHG strategy planned for 2023. It is also working to introduce net-zero emissions ships in U.K. waters by 2025 as it works to make domestic shipping net-zero by mid-century.

But despite positive noises from the government, Transport & Environment's Abbasov stressed the U.K. was a relatively small player at the IMO. "The DfT has been genuinely helpful — maybe not always vocal — but genuinely helpful behind the scenes in giving the right feedback and at least recognizing that what was being discussed and agreed is nonsense," he reflected. "But we should not overestimate the U.K.'s power in international negotiations. The U.K. is one country out of 190, and secondly it's not even the most powerful shipping nation. Power has really moved to Panama… The U.K. is no match to those countries. Even Malta and Greece are more powerful than the U.K. when it comes to shipping."

Optimists remain confident emerging hydrogen, battery and biofuel technologies coupled with new ship designs could yet deliver a net-zero-emission fleets by 2050. But with vested interests once again locked in a standoff with environmental campaigners and those corporates that want to build a net-zero economy, it looks as if the voyage to deliver a low-emission global fleet is proving to be as tumultuous as ever. 

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