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Maritime industry refuses to change emissions course

Two weeks ago, the eyes of the world were on the U.N. headquarters in New York, watching 175 national governments step up to the stage and in (relatively) quick succession formally commit their countries to the most wide-ranging and ambitious climate deal in history.

But in stark contrast to the sweeping ambition on display in New York, in London a meeting of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) showed an industry moving at a markedly slower pace towards decisive climate action.

Despite the hopes of many climate campaigners, last week's meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) did not deliver a greenhouse gas reductions target for the industry.

Once again the difficult decisions were kicked along the shipping path.

The policy was backed by the Sustainable Shipping Initiative — a coalition of the greenest shipping companies around the world — and would have seen a framework established that would lead to the adoption of an industry-wide carbon reduction target in line with the Paris target of limiting warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

However, it was not to be. Emerging economies including Russia, Brazil and China, backed by the U.S., put up strong resistance to the idea of any firm emissions reductions target, arguing the industry's mitigation efforts should not begin until data from individual ships has been collected and analysed.

Delegates did agree to establish a working group for an in-depth discussion on how to "further progress this item" at the MEPC's next meeting in October, according to Climate Home, in a compromise agreement but this only came after IMO chief Kitack Lim had urged delegates not to "kill the issue" outright.

The industry did offer one olive branch to those concerned about its considerable and expanding climate impact, approving new mandatory requirements for ships to record and report their fuel consumption. The widely expected new measure is being billed as the first in a three-stage process towards a decision on whether "further measures are needed to enhance energy efficiency and address greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping," according to an IMO statement.

Under the new system, ships weighing more than 5,000 tonnes will be required to collect consumption data for each type of fuel they use, which will be aggregated and sent to the IMO's Ship Fuel Consumption database at the end of each year. The IMO will use the consumption data — which will be anonymized — to produce an annual report for the MEPC. The system is still pending approval at the MEPC session in October, but could enter force in 2018.

In a statement, Lim said the data collection system represents a significant contribution to international efforts to tackle climate change, claiming IMO delegates brought "the spirit of the Paris Agreement" to last week's meetings. "The unanimous agreement to take forward a mandatory data collection system for ships' fuel consumption is a significant step," he said. "It will provide a solid basis on which to consider, armed with information, whether further measures may be required in future to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from shipping."

However, the paucity of progress on absolute emissions reductions angered campaigners, who were quick to denounce the meeting as a failure for the industry. "The IMO has fallen flat on its face in the first test of its determination to tackle greenhouse gas emissions after Paris, unable even to agree to develop a work plan for reducing ship emissions," said John Maggs, senior policy advisor at campaign group Transport & Environment. "Despite a large majority of member states and industry supporting action, the IMO proved unable to translate this into progress, instead allowing itself to be held hostage by a handful of BRICS and the maverick and increasingly isolated Cook Islands."

The industry did offer one olive branch … approving new mandatory requirements for ships to record and report their fuel consumption.

Others warned that the IMO's approach threatens the reputation of the entire industry. Alastair Fischbacher, chief executive of the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, said the failure to agree a process for emissions reduction will put significant pressure on the industry to deliver in October. "The shipping industry cannot go to COP22 in Morocco without this," he said in a statement. "Not only will it damage the industry's reputation, it also runs the risk of external regulators taking the matter into their own hands and circumnavigating the IMO, which no one in the industry wants to see."

Shipping consistently has resisted calls for an emissions reduction target, and along with aviation controversially was exempted from mitigation requirements under the Paris Agreement. Many within the sector insist efforts to reduce emissions should be limited to efficiency measures and voluntary fuel emissions savings, claiming the benefits that come with reduced fuel costs already give ship owners incentives enough to minimize their carbon impact.

Simon Bennett, director of policy and external relations at the International Chamber of Shipping, told BusinessGreen late last year that emissions reduction will follow as a result of economic pressures on fuel consumption. "The important thing to understand about the shipping industry is that fuel costs by far are the most significant cost that a ship operator has. So ship operators have every interest in reducing the fuel consumption of a ship as much as possible," he said at the time.

However, campaigners argue this approach does not reflect the sense of urgency needed to tackle the projected growth in shipping emissions — which could rocket by up to 250 percent by 2050, according to a 2014 U.N.-backed study.

"Although the debate at MEPC 69 has taken a step forward, it is not substantive enough and falls short of both external expectations and even internal ambition from a large number of the members," Fischbacher said. "We must move on from the debate about collecting data and the shipping industry's impact on the environment, and using this as a reason to delay action. While developing a robust data collection is an important part, the IMO must actually demonstrate commitment to drive progressive change and take responsibility with the rest of the world in meeting global warming reduction targets."

But others were more optimistic about the progress made by the shipping industry. Galen Hon, manager of Carbon War Room's Shipping Efficiency operation, pointed to pro-active efficiency initiatives from more progressive charter operators and shipowners, as a sign of industry collaboration and innovation.

For example, last month U.S. charterer Intermarine and German shipowner Hammonia launched a deep retrofit project on three ships in a bid to shave 25 percent of the fuel costs associated with each vessel, with the savings split between the two firms. Meanwhile, new technology such as air lubrication systems, which reduces friction on ship's hulls to save fuel and carbon emissions for ship operators, is sparking growing interest from operators, including cruise giant Royal Caribbean Cruises.

In what turned out to be a momentous week for climate action, many in the shipping industry and beyond were hoping the IMO would be seized with the kind of fervor for climate action that was garnering headlines in New York.

But while undoubtedly some progress was made, once again the difficult decisions were kicked along the shipping path, so to speak, as the industry struggles to overcome old rifts and conservative attitudes towards emissions reduction. New technologies and voluntary projects from the most progressive shipbuilders provides some hope on the horizon, but it remains to be seen whether the industry as a whole can be persuaded to change its course on climate action ahead of the next gathering in October.

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