Growing coalition pushes for cap on CO2 emissions from ships

Countries that are blocking efforts to curb emissions from shipping are looking increasingly out of touch, writes Tristan Smith
<p>(Image by tpsdave)</p>

(Image by tpsdave)

If “Paris is the departure point, rather than final destination”, then London and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) are the first stops on this journey.

This week, the UN’s shipping arm has convened a meeting of its Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) in the UK capital to debate the issue of maritime emissions.

Coincidentally, the meeting will conclude the same day as the signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement in New York.

The MEPC needs to harness the enthusiasm of the Paris talks if the shipping sector is to pass this crucial test of political will, and actually implement policy rather than just talking about ambition.

There are just five papers submitted under the meeting’s agenda item on greenhouse gases (GHGs), an increase from the two circulated at the previous meeting in June 2015.

Those five papers will frame the debate. All except a paper providing a report on the IMO’s activity at COP21 will ask for one thing: for the IMO to establish a process within which to define an appropriate share or reduction of international shipping’s GHG emissions.

One of the papers refers to shipping doing its “fair share”. In another, a reference to “intended IMO determined contributions” echoes the national emissions reduction plans submitted as part of the Paris climate talks – known as intended nationally-determined contributions (INDCs)

In 2012, international shipping was estimated to be responsible for around 2% of global GHG emissions (weighing in at 796 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent).

That number, in itself, raises important questions, but there are more important considerations that should motivate decisive action at the IMO.

These include future scenarios that predict increases in CO2 from shipping to between 1.2 and nearly 3 billion tonnes by 2050, and the contrast between those expected increases in emissions and the global absolute reduction in emissions needed to achieve “well below 2C, aiming for 1.5C”

Defining a “fair share” is the foundation on which further policy developments at IMO can be built. Efforts at IMO to date have been focused on mandatory efficiency standards for new ships, the Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI). 

Politically, the entry into force of that regulation in 2013 was a major achievement for the sector and the IMO. However, relative to the Paris Agreement, scientifically, the achievements are questionable.

The impact of EEDI is factored into the 1.2 – 3 million tonnes that is projected for the sector by 2050 – we cannot be too proud of a policy which only nudges the emissions trajectory in the right direction. Climate does not respond to political achievements or gestures, its governing laws of physics and chemistry are predominantly influenced by one thing alone – our emissions.

This is not the first time the topic of the “fair share” has been raised by the IMO. At the previous MEPC meeting in June 2015, the Republic of the Marshall Islands submitted a paper requesting the IMO adopt a target for its GHG emissions consistent with the avoidance of dangerous climate change, and accelerate efforts to implement policy to realise that target.

Last June, the MEPC debate concluded that the request was premature. Bolstered by the positive and progressive outcome of the COP21 summit Paris, the initiative has been built upon in a new paper submitted by a broad coalition, including again the Marshall Islands, but also France, Belgium, Germany, Solomon Islands and Morocco.

Politically, this coalition sends a strong message – it combines developed and developing countries, ship-owning countries, flag states (Marshall Islands is registry to approximately 8% of the global fleet), the host of COP 21 and the host of COP 22 (Morocco).

This time however, the word “target” does not appear, instead the words “fair share” are used.

This change signals how sensitive this issue is. Fears abound about the consequence of further regulation of shipping GHGs, although few of those fears are backed by strong evidence or grounded in rationality. These concerns and national self-interest appear myopic  when set against the probability of dangerous climate change.

One of those fears voiced in response to the paper submitted on targets in 2015, is that through GHG policy, shipping, and therefore trade, might be ‘capped’ in some way – putting a finite limit on national and global economic growth.


That discussing a work plan to adopt a target is so easily equated with the capping of world trade, shows alarming levels of paranoia.

More generally this fear shows a complete failure of vision and lack of confidence in technology. It presumes that shipping cannot ever operate without GHG emissions: that the only way to produce the power required to propel goods across the seas is through the combustion of fossil fuels.

Technology change at scale across shipping is not easy, but witnessing what has and is being achieved inside and outside of shipping (including decarbonisation at gigawatts scale of whole countries and industries), it is hard not to read this fear to anything other than a profound lack of imagination.

Another fear is that there could be consequences for global equity with respect to trade.

Burden of mitigation

The technology needed to reduce emissions might increase transport costs. There is concern over whether these costs would affect all countries equally, or disproportionately affect remote developing countries.

This gets to the heart of doubts that have been central to debates at UNFCCC: that the burden of mitigation should be allocated more to those countries with the greatest responsibility, the developed countries.

This fear deserves careful attention. Exacerbated global inequality is a potential risk and the topic also presents some challenges to the politics of the IMO – a forum in which policies cannot easily distinguish between developed and developing countries due to the international nature of the industry.

There are emerging concepts of how it could be addressed (ideas around compensation and rebate). But more fundamentally, this fear is exactly what wider frameworks such as the UNFCCC, World Trade Organisation and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are designed to guard against.

China’s role

China, as one of the world’s greatest shipbuilding nations and technology developers has more to gain than many from the shipping GHG debate, by being at the vanguard of shipping’s technological transition.

A healthy and sustainable global shipping industry is fundamental to China’s trade and role as the greatest importer and exporter in the global economy.

A delayed, subdued or poorly executed debate on how shipping can undertake its inevitable decarbonisation, is possibly one of the greatest missed opportunities that this country faces.

This week, failure to progress meaningful action on shipping’s GHG undermines:

  • the credibility of the IMO to act on its GHG emissions,

  • the conviction of the parties to the Paris Agreement to implement GHG action – sending a dangerous signal to other fora,

  • reduces the time available for a well-managed decarbonisation of the shipping industry,

  • leaves an important portion of the GHG ‘pie’ free to continue growing and jeopardises efforts to limit temperature rise and avoid dangerous climate change.

The debate deserves our attention and care.