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Driving Change

The most important climate meeting of the year

The International Maritime Organization aims to adopt a revised greenhouse gas emission strategy for the shipping sector.

Overhead view of deep water port with cargo ships and containers

Image via Shutterstock/apiguide

Sometimes we place too much hope in large international meetings resulting in transformational global climate action. The desired pace of change rarely matches what stakeholders end up signing as negotiations transpire.

But could the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 80) meeting be different? Maybe so, as some are calling the 80th session of MEPC next month in London the most important climate meeting of 2023. 

While shipping accounts for 3 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, it’s the truest example of a hard-to-abate sector. Many companies across the value chain are working hard to accelerate a range of solutions such as ammonia or hydrogen-fueled ships. However, if progress on maritime shipping decarbonization was a large cargo ship setting sail, then it is safe to say that ship is still idling at the port. And in 2023, for multinational companies, with cargo on said ships, maritime Scope 3 emissions don’t represent “low-hanging fruit” to achieve meaningful emission reductions. 

The U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization recognizes the realities of the moment, highlighting that the best pathway for decarbonizing the maritime sector is still unclear, even with incredible progress being made on new technologies and fuel solutions. 

The time for ambition is now

That’s where MEPC 80 can help — hopefully. The IMO’s Strategy on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships calls for only a 50 percent reduction in ship emissions by 2050, something for which the IMO has received continued criticism

One major reason for such criticism is that the current target does not align with the Paris climate agreement to limit warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius as it does not entirely phase out GHG emissions by 2050. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher for me, given the IMO is a specialized agency of the United Nations, responsible for regulating the shipping industry globally — the same United Nations involved in said Paris Agreement.

Now, at MEPC 80, the IMO will set out to adopt new standards to align with 1.5C and set the industry on a new decarbonization path for nation-states to follow suit. However, the IMO must first negotiate revisions to its strategy adopted in April 2018. With the U.S. strongly in support of achieving zero emissions from maritime shipping by 2050, it will be interesting to see how these negotiations unfold. 

To learn more about the inner workings of what will transpire next month, I caught up with The Aspen Institute’s Kathryn Benz, senior policy manager, shipping decarbonization initiative. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Vartan Badalian: The IMO will be hosting a meeting in July on maritime decarbonization. Bring us all up to speed: What is the purpose of the meeting?

Benz: In 2018, the IMO adopted a strategy to regulate GHG emissions from shipping. And what's important about the strategy is it’s the key framework for all of the IMO’s work on GHG emissions and air pollutants. It sets the level of ambition for the IMO action on future GHG reductions, as well as guiding principles and processes for adopting policy.

The strategy itself doesn't adopt regulations; it sets sort of the framework for future policy actions. But developing this framework sends those regulatory signals that are important to private industry in investing in zero-emission technologies and fuels — what needs to be done and when it needs to happen. 

So in this case, the initial strategy was adopted in 2018. And it only called for a 50 percent reduction in ship emissions by 2050 … So right now, the IMO is revisiting that strategy. And we expect it to adopt a new or revised strategy in London in July … This strategy is going to set the criteria for any rules adopted by the IMO over the next half-decade, making it really the last chance to ratchet up the ambition, and the best chance to enact a multinational framework that sets the shipping sector on a 1.5 [degrees Celsius] equitably aligned pathway.

Badalian: What is the hoped or anticipated outcome of the meeting, and how will it affect the maritime shipping industry overall compared to the current strategy of only a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2050? What are the suspected points of gridlock during negotiations? 

Benz: We need clear interim targets that provide more sector-wide certainty about what needs to happen and when. The industry has shown that it will be innovative and ambitious if it's given the structure and support to do so. Given that this is a global sector, we think that the most straightforward driver of innovation and ambitious decarbonization is a clear, ambitious and global regulatory framework set by the IMO…. 

A multinational framework can provide sector-wide certainty; it can help provide first movers who are investing in zero-emission solutions to ensure a globally equitable transition and further unlock private industry ambition… 

A strategy also needs to have interim targets aligned with a [1.5C] pathway. Interim targets are fundamental and provide clear milestones for achieving any long-term goal… And we think the strategy needs to be on a well-to-wake basis, along with any policies that enact the strategy and any midterm measures. And so that's accounting for the full lifecycle emissions of shipping fuels for all GHGs emitted from ships. 

Badalian: What’s unique about the IMO and maritime decarbonization that makes this regulatory body suited for positive impact, and how has it not used such advantages in its favor compared to other sectors within the transport economy that may not have their own "IMO"? 

Benz: Unlike other transportation sectors, the shipping sector has this global regulatory body that will continue to allow it to develop these consistent, comprehensive policy solutions for major issues facing the maritime sector like decarbonization. What happens if the IMO doesn't act, or if it doesn't act comprehensively, setting the sector on this 1.5 aligned pathway, is that the responsibility falls to individual states or even industry to fill those gaps. 

A piecemeal approach to shipping decarbonization isn't to anyone's benefit given how the global shipping sector is structured. It can delay the deployment of technologies, it can risk fragmentation of supply chains if only certain countries act or certain industry players act, [and] it can leave some stakeholders unable to fully participate in that transition. Compliance with a patchwork of regulations also increases the risk for industry and it makes a sort of a predictable, affordable transition much more difficult.

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