The World May Have Just Missed Its Chance To Seriously Tackle Shipping Emissions

7 minute read

The United Nations has long been a powerful force in the fight against climate change. But the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the U.N. agency assigned to regulate the cruise liners, container ships, and bulk cargo carriers that operate on the high seas beyond the authority of any one country, has been another story.

Global shipping is responsible for about 3% of global emissions. But in the lead up to the Paris Agreement back in 2015, then-IMO Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu told world diplomats that the sector should not be subject to any overall emissions limits. “Such measures would artificially limit the ability of shipping to meet the demand created by the world economy,” he said. After pressure to address emissions intensified, the group’s member states came out with a 2018 agreement that would aim to cut emissions by half by 2050, a significant step, but still far from the complete decarbonization that scientists say will be necessary within three decades to avert catastrophic climate change.

Now, at a follow up IMO meeting this month intended to revise shipping’s greenhouse gas strategy, international delegates have agreed to tighten the sector’s lax emissions goals, though not nearly as much as climate advocates say is needed. IMO members set a well-caveated goal to reach net-zero emissions “by or around, i.e. close to 2050, taking into account different national circumstances.”

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Current IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim called the agreement struck in London today “monumental.” “It is not the end goal,” he added. “It is in many ways a starting point for the work that needs to intensify even more over the years and decades ahead of us.”

But many observers in the international climate community were furious over the outcome, saying the IMO has failed to bring future emissions from the world’s oceangoing vessels in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement, particularly because their agreement lacks a firm 2050 deadline. The targets will be up for discussion again in five years, but many environmentalists say that by then it will be too late to change the sector’s emissions trajectory before 2050. Faïg Abbasov, Shipping programme director of European sustainability NGO Transport and Environment, called the deal a “wishy-washy compromise.” “Aside from FIFA, it’s hard to think of an international organization more useless than the IMO,” he said on Thursday, after a draft agreement was released.

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Still, the result could have been worse. Much of the IMO negotiations in recent weeks were carried out in small group sessions, which made it difficult for some national delegations to get their perspective heard. The body very nearly agreed to a weaker compromise, before a last day push by delegations from small island states like Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands, with support from developed nations like the U.K., succeeded in winning concessions from developing countries. Rising sea levels caused by climate change are threatening those small island nations’ existence, while developing countries like India and Brazil have historically been opposed to stronger shipping emissions requirements, out of fear that the limits could hurt their export-dependent economies.

One of the crucial points of contention in the negotiations were whether the new IMO greenhouse gas strategy would include interim 2030 and 2040 emissions targets in advance of a final 2050 goal. Climate advocates say that those near-term targets are essential to making sure the longer-term goals are actually achieved. They would also provide a clear market signal for international shipping companies to put more investment into green technologies, and production and distribution infrastructure for zero emission fuels.

The IMO agreement does include new shorter-term targets that would cut emissions by 20-30% by 2030 and 70-80% by 2040. But instead of actually being referred to as firm targets, the final agreement ambiguously refers to them as “indicative checkpoints.” They’re also lower than what the Pacific Island countries and their bloc of supporters were pushing for: 37% emissions reductions in the sector by 2030 and a 96% reduction by 2040. That level of ambition would have kept the sector on track to do its part in keeping global temperature rise at around 1.5°C. The upper bound of the targets the IMO did adopt, a 30% emission cut by 2030 and an 80% cut by 2040, were only put in place thanks to the last minute push by small island nations on July 6.

Some observers cited the change as a win. Others were less positive about the result. “In typical IMO fashion there was delay tactics in working groups while the real inaction happened behind closed doors where many [national delegations] were excluded until the final hour and in front of a near ultimatum,” said Lucy Gilliam, senior shipping policy officer at European environmental NGO Seas at Risk. “The Pacific [states] brought it back from the brink. But let’s be clear that this was not transparent, just, or equitable and it is reflected in the result reached.”

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The current agreement will cause shipping to overshoot its carbon budget to keep global temperatures under 1.5°C by 2032, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. If the sector hits the 2030 and 2040 targets set in the agreement, and actually fully decarbonizes by 2050, it can still stay on track to keep global temperature rise below 2°C.

Much depends on what actual enforcement measures the IMO agrees to, and how strongly they are enforced. Some options include mandates to use lower emission fuels, emissions cap and trade systems, or direct taxes on carbon emissions. The details are set to be hammered out over the course of the next year, with implementation happening around 2026 or 2027. Climate advocates say the last minute IMO push by small island nations helped give them a leg up in those negotiations, since the stronger high-end targets could keep more stringent emission reduction policies on the table. “They were heroes this week,” says Delaine McCullough, shipping emissions campaign manager at Ocean Conservancy. “There’s no other way to describe them.”

Still, the ambiguous language around the targets has left plenty of room for negotiators to sidestep strong emission policies. Individual nations could take matters into their own hands, implementing stricter emissions rules for shipping companies trying to use their ports. The E.U. for instance, adopted a policy last year that would force shippers to pay for emissions. Some environmentalists, however, say that it would be better if the IMO were implementing such financial schemes, as the international body would be able to direct funds generated by carbon levies toward poorer nations that need the most help in adapting to climate change.

“There’ll be a big debate over where those revenues are distributed, and that’s where the question of an equitable and just transition will play out,” says McCullough. “It seems like [this week’s agreement] is the end, but it actually isn’t. It’s the starting gun.”

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at