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The pledge by the international shipping industry to halve greenhouse gas emissions in more than 30 years from 2008 levels could be too little, too slow; the US and Saudi Arabia did not even sign the pact

Global shipping has taken delayed action to mitigate climate change (Photo by International Council on Clean Transportation)

Against a demand to completely decarbonise the global shipping industry, member nations of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) decided last week to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% annually by 2050 compared with levels in 2008, in what is being seen as the least ambitious compromise.

In a meeting held in London and attended by more than 100 IMO member nations, the United Nations body adopted an initial strategy to reduce GHG emissions from international shipping. The target set in the agreement, however, has been seen as anaemic, which was underlined by Kitack Lime, Secretary General of the IMO, while addressing the plenary.

“The text may not be satisfactory to all but it represents a strong middle ground,” he said in his speech. “In this context, I believe this compromise text is a solution that should be able to keep everyone on board.”

The agreement has been criticised by environmentalists. “Although the deal lists possible mitigation measures, the lack of an action plan for their development and the tone of discussions at the IMO does not give much confidence that measures will be adopted soon,” said Veronica Frank, Political Advisor of activist group Greenpeace International.

The historic Paris Agreement to combat climate change in December 2015 had excluded two major carbon emitters — aviation and shipping. Both were major industries regulated by United Nations agencies.

In October 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed to cap carbon dioxide emissions. In a meeting in Montreal, 191 nations at the general assembly of the United Nations aviation agency decided to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from international flights amid strong reservations by developing economies such as India and China. The ICAO aimed at carbon-neutral growth of the sector from 2020 and to halve net aviation carbon dioxide emissions of 50% relative to 2005 levels.

See: India marks serious flaw in aviation emissions deal

Late action

It took more than two years since the Paris pact for the shipping industry to announce its intentions to rein in global warming. Shipping is the backbone of global trade by accounting for 80% of it by volume. Although it is touted as the most energy efficient mode of transport, the fuel it uses is harmful to the environment and human health.

International shipping contributes some 3% of the global GHG emissions, which is roughly equivalent to the carbon dioxide produced by Germany in a year. If this industrial sector were a nation, it would be the world’s sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

International shipping contributes around 3% of overall greenhouse gas emissions (Photo by Pedro Szekely)

As global trade accelerates, these emissions are expected to rise dramatically by 250% if there’s no intervention. Some estimates say that by 2050, shipping would account for as much as 15% of the global carbon budget set by the Paris accord.

Unless shipping reduces its carbon footprint, there is little hope of keeping average global temperature rise below the tipping points of 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times set by the Paris agreement in its ambitious and minimum goals. Experts say that this is only possible if overall emissions peak by 2020 and then decline rapidly.

Although technologies exist to decarbonise the global shipping industry, these are not being adopted rapidly, partly because ships last for long and deploying cleaner fleets takes time. Also, many developing nations, where economic and trading activities are rising steeply, are against emissions caps in shipping.

However, new standards in ship design are expected to lower emissions. Additionally, zero-carbon shipping fuels are slowly becoming available. Reducing the speed at which ships travel by just 10% is expected to reduce fuel use by almost a third, according to the Economist magazine.

Strong opposition

The US, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, India, Iran and the Philippines were among the strongest opponents of a cap on emissions, with some of them arguing that it could harm the shipping industry, and others saying it would need adjustment before the strategy is finalised in 2023, according to media reports. The US and Saudi Arabia refused to sign the pact.

“I believe India should agree (to the deal) and also support small island states on the proposal made by them,” said Srinivas Krishnaswamy, CEO of environmental think tank Vasudha Foundation. “It is hardly going to make a dent to the Indian shipping industry, which doesn’t have a big share.”

In the run up to the IMO London meeting, most Pacific and small island states, which would be among the hardest impacted by climate change, wanted full decarbonisation by 2050 or even 2035. “We will have to send the message that at the end of the day the technologies do exist for (the industry) to decarbonise by 2035, and there’s really an opportunity for the taking in order to make their business far more efficient and far more profitable,” Marshall Islands environment minister David Paul was quoted as saying.

The Marshall Islands, a low-lying Pacific nation, has the world’s second largest shipping registry, with 11% of all ships registered there. Panama, where 18% of ships are registered, on the other hand, strongly opposed curbing emissions. The industry too was opposed to any cuts. The compromise emissions reduction goal — 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 — is half the level small island states said was necessary to stop the most disastrous effects of climate change in their countries.

There have been allegations that the reasons for slow and inadequate action is also because the industry has an undue influence on IMO. At a recent IMO environmental committee meeting, 31% of nations were represented in part by direct business interests, according to an October 2017 report by InfluenceMap, a watchdog institution.

Although this might save costs for the industry in the short run, it could potentially be harmful for global shipping over the longer term. “The later we leave decarbonisation, the more rapid and potentially disruptive it will be for shipping,” Alastair Marsh, CEO of Lloyd’s Register, which provides consulting services to the industry, warned in a meeting last year.

With inputs from Juhi Chaudhary


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