The UN agency responsible for setting climate targets for global shipping, was left red faced today, as delegates pushed measures that broke the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
After a week of talks, delegates at the UN’s International Maritime Organization failed to agree to targets that would meet the Paris Agreement, as they had originally agreed to do in 2018, a deal the shipping industry hailed as ‘historic’ and which 100 countries had voted on.
Even worse, what emerged today was that IMO will not be imposing any meaningful penalties for ships that fail these weaker greenhouse gas standards. So today’s conclusion to the week of UN climate talks was a weak and toothless agreement.
It was weak enforcement of a dozen IMO laws that were found to be to blame for the oil spill and ship sinking crisis facing the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Reunion Island, which the IMO has so far avoided taking any responsibility for.
By projecting such weak enforcement of its own laws into the proposals on greenhouse gas emissions for the global shipping fleet, this will increase climate risk and push the world beyond the permissible limits set by the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the UN’s own scientists (on the 1.5C target to save the world’s coral reefs).
It also increases the chance that the IMO will be broken up into a regional set of shipping regulatory organizations as the US announced today its own set of emission targets (called the Oceans Climate Based Solutions Act) to mirror stricter European Union shipping emission measures introduced this summer as well as the United Kingdom’s.
Weak outcomes after a week of talks
Global shipping decided to unilaterally opt out of the Paris Agreement in 2015, given the influence from high-polluting shipbuilding nations like Japan. Under pressure from NGOs and environmentally-minded Governments, an agreement was reached in 2018 to voluntarily comply with the Paris Agreement emissions targets. However, today’s announcement does not come close to these targets.
From an analysis produced by the International Council on Clean Transport (summarized above), global shipping currently emits 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year.
- To meet the 1.5C scenario as scientists have argued for and was included in the Paris Agreement, carbon emissions from shipping need to be reduced to 350 million a year, a reduction of 75% within a decade.
- To meet the less ambitious 2018 ‘historic agreement’ for shipping, emissions only need to be reduced by 15% to reach 850 million tons a year by 2030.
- If nothing was done at all, global carbon dioxide emissions would actually increase by 15% by 2030.
- And so the outcomes of this week’s talks show carbon dioxide emissions increasing by 14% by 2030 (with weak enforcement) rather than being forced to come down.
What needed to have happened
The Paris Agreement showed the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In order to do so, two steps were needed. First, over the next decade, ships would need to become more efficient with their existing fuel systems. Second, within ten years, new ships need to be produced at commercial scale using alternative fuels to enable the switch to alternative energy sources than fossil fuels.
To achieve the first part of that strategy over the next decade, there are technologies available on the market that can achieve this. For example, innovative new ship sail technologies or bubble lubrication under hulls all of which could reduce global shipping emissions by at least 10%. These technologies would keep shipping on track for the 2018 target. Historically, global shipping has invested less than 1% of revenue in R&D, technology and innovation, making such investments one of the lowest ratios of all major global industries. Global banking invests 12% of its revenue into new technologies, for example, which is over twelve times more than global shipping. This is part of the explanation why greater efficiency savings have not been identified in the maritime sector.
Within a decade, one of four alternative fuels need to be included on ships. That is electric, ammonia or green hydrogen. Environmentalists are still divided on the amount of methane emissions that produce a fourth option, LNG gas. Methane is a four times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
This week’s negotiations failed the first part of the strategy. The talks were so acrimonious that as reported in the Maritime industry’s news site, Splash 247, 30 country delegations threatened to walk out over the lack of ambition being shown by the UN agency. Although the IMO is hosting the talks, Japan chairs the powerful environment and ship emissions committee.
Other serious questions need to be asked about why the UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutteres, is allowing individual UN agencies to develop their own strategies and science than go beyond the internationally agreed targets set under the UNFCCC Paris Agreement. All UN Agencies should be harmonized under the Paris Agreement, and there should be forced annual reporting from these agencies to show scientifically, how their proposals are all aligned with the Paris Agreement. This would include important agencies like the the IMO, the WHO, UNEP, UNDP, GEF, as well as the Food and Agricultural Organization, responsible for global food supply chains.
IMO failed at its own strategy
Observers to this week’s talks have responded overwhelmingly with how badly disappointed they were.
Global environmental organization, Pacific Environment, has been working on the climate crisis, healthy oceans and the rights of indigenous communities. Pacific Environment’s Climate Director, Madeline Rose expressed her frustration at the talks.
“This week, the IMO failed to make progress on its own climate strategy. The IMO’s Greenhouse Gas working group advanced a proposed policy that, as written, will allow the shipping industry’s climate emissions to continue to rise for the rest of this decade – the very decade that climate science tells us we must be steeply reversing absolute emissions in order to save the planet from catastrophe.”
The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) have also been following this week’s talks at the IMO and produced their own independent analysis of the outcome. ICCT’s head of marine transportation, Dan Rutherford echoed comments from Pacific Environment, when asked whether this week’s talks were successful. “From my perspective, no. Short-term measures are supposed to reduce emissions before 2023 to put IMO on a path to the climate goals agreed to in 2018, including peaking emissions as soon as possible and reducing them on a pathway consistent with the Paris Agreement.
What was agreed this week allows emissions to grow, largely unabated, for the rest of the decade. If fully enforced, we estimate that it will only cut carbon dioxide and fuel use by 1% from ‘Business as Usual’ in 2030. So under this policy, shipping emissions will still grow by about 15% over the next ten years.”
Grave implications from these IMO talks
The repercussions of such an increase in emissions for the next decade are serious, not just for the shipping industry. The IMO had been subject to several high profile protests, and the outcome from this week’s talks will not help dispel the illusion that the UN agency acts more in favor of large shipping interests than it does as in the spirit of the United Nations Charter under which it was founded.
Madeline Rose from Pacific Environment explains. “The shipping industry is currently on course to increase its absolute carbon dioxide emission by 15% by 2030. This policy proposal would, at best, cut maybe 1% off of that pathway. So, the industry’s absolute emissions would still be 14% above its own agreed-upon baseline.
This would violate the IMO’s Initial Greenhouse Gas Strategy in three ways:
- It would fail to curb absolute emissions by 2023,
- It would fail to force a peaking of absolute emissions,
- And it would fail to put the industry on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with their ‘fair share’ burden to achieve the International Paris Climate Agreement.
And let’s note: this depressing projection does not even include other alarming GHGs from ships, like methane, which are aggressively rising as ships’ transition to Liquefied Natural Gas.”
The concern about rising emissions were also shared by the ICCT. In the aftermath of this week’s talks, Dan Rutherford said, “Shipping emissions will continue to grow, requiring more drastic and expensive mitigation in the future when IMO tries to bend the emissions curve downward. It also raises the stakes for mid- and long-term measures to reduce the carbon intensity of new ships and fuels.
Who was responsible for this week’s failure?
Madeline Rose was clear where accountability lay, saying, “Japan and the International Chamber of Shipping [the global lobbying arm of ship owners and operators] got exactly what they wanted out of this week’s negotiations. They are spinning a narrative that this policy does enough, because it achieves the technical bare minimum of one pillar of the IMO’s Original Greenhouse Gas Strategy. But here’s the thing: we won’t save the planet by doing the absolute minimum that we can possibly justify with legal manipulation.”
Her comments follows strong campaigns outside the IMO by ocean advocacy group, Ocean Rebellion. They conducted a series of protests outside the IMO, Japan and Panama embassies, who they saw as accountable for the lower environmental standards in global shipping.
According to Clive Russell, a spokesperson at Ocean Rebellion who helped organize Monday’s protests, “Ocean Rebellion organized three protests against the IMO. Firstly at the IMO, then at the Panama Embassy and finally at the Japan Embassy. By linking these three polluting protagonists Ocean Rebellion is pointing where the power lies – not with a UN international body acting on humanities’ behalf, but at a UN international body regulating on behalf of two nations and the shipping and fossil fuel industry.”
Panama has fallen into the spotlight as one of six ‘flags of convenience’ countries where 70% of global shipping is registered, but they have avoided paying an estimated $15 billion a year that would be owed under a carbon tax, due to weaker environmental standards on vessels registered there.
No consequences for non compliance
Japan had been pushing forward a controversial proposal called EEXI. This had prompted Ocean Rebellion to put up signs outside the Japanese Embassy saying ‘EEXI equals Extinction.’ Dan Rutherford from ICCT explains his concerns about the EEXI proposal, and also the lack of enforcement of any infringement that emerged from this week’s talks.
“Japan led efforts to advance the technical efficiency approach (EEXI) while the EU led work to finalize the operational carbon intensity indicator. China and Brazil introduced the idea of a grading scheme to reward or penalize ships according to their carbon intensity. What was disappointing is that compromise measure ended up being weaker than its component pieces in the end.
A key problem is enforcement and the risk of an unlevel playing field. For example, originally it was proposed that ships that consistently failed to reduce their emissions would lose their license to sail. That was stripped from the proposal, so there are few actual consequences for non-compliance.”
Why were credible alternative plans rejected?
The outcome of this week’s negotiations was not a foregone conclusion. Credible alternatives had been presented to the International Maritime Organization.
Madeline Rose explains Pacific Environment’s position. “Civil society submitted to the International Maritime Organization a proposal to regulate ships’ carbon intensity, by setting a ‘goal based’ carbon intensity standard. This would function similarly to the state of California’s ‘Low Carbon Fuel Standard,’ effectively requiring ships to increasingly improve their carbon intensity over a number of years until reaching a certain threshold.
California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard has had an important impact on accelerating the zero-emissions automobile and heavy duty truck markets. Our proposal would have done the same: both generating immediate climate and public health benefits and catalyzing investments in zero-emissions vessel design, technologies, and fuels.”
Dan Rutherford expanded on this, showing that robust proposals were rejected by delegates, with no good reason why.
“Civil society, led by the Clean Shipping Coalition and Pacific Environment, had a pretty robust proposal to guaranteed compliance, enforcement, and emissions reductions without revoking a ship’s license to sail. That didn’t make it into the compromise proposal.
Our (ICCT’s) research points to three ways that the modest benefits of the EEXI could be improved:
- Evaluating closer to real-world operating conditions;
- Implementing ASAP and tightening over time, and
- Closely monitoring engine power limit overrides.
The first and last of these could still be adopted as part of future IMO guidelines.”
With time running out for the planet to avoid irreversible climate change, drastic action is needed.
Dan Rutherford raise the prospect of a more regional approach.
“We expect regional efforts to cut emissions from ships to ramp up, as we’re seeing in the EU. Also, this week the US Congress introduced a bill for a US Emissions Program, which is the first step towards a carbon tax on shipping, and incentives for slow steaming.”
Commenting on the proposed US emissions monitoring system for maritime news site, Splash247, Dan Hubbell of Ocean Conservancy’s shipping emissions campaign said, “As a major source of greenhouse gas emissions—on par with a G7 country—shipping often falls in the blind spot of ocean-based climate change solutions. We’re encouraged to see the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act introduce a monitoring, reporting and verification system that lays the foundation for real climate action on shipping by the United States, which could be pivotal to the development of green ports and zero carbon shipping.”
Such a regional grouping would give more states a greater stake in managing their oceans. Aside from Liberia as a ‘big three’ flag of convenience, there could be an opportunity for African states to develop much more robust protections around the African continent’s coastline, than is currently in place under the IMO framework.
Final meeting of IMO in November
The final IMO meeting to set these rules will take place in November 16-20. Given what is riding on these outcomes, there will be a lot of scrutiny on the individual positions of various delegates relative to what their leaders have said on the climate crisis.
Madeline Rose was firm in her resolve to see change in global shipping. “Clean shipping campaigners will always work in good faith at the International Maritime Organization, out of respect for what is indeed and inherently global sector.
But in the face of the climate emergency, we will campaign aggressively for emissions controls in ports and in national and regional waters to ensure the shipping sector does its part to save people, our ocean, and our planet from destruction by fossil fuel pollution.”
The shipping industry appear to have been causing a lot of emergencies around the world recently – oil spills in Russia and Mauritius, near miss oil spills and exploding ships off the coast of Sri Lanka and Venezuela, seafarer humanitarian crises around the world, political risk across Beirut, the Red Sea and Trinidad, ship safety issues leading to the loss of 40 crew in the Gulf Livestock 1 cattle ship off the coast of Japan. It is clearly an industry that has gone rogue, with a regulator too weak to even recognize when it is out of its depth. And yet, this is the industry the global economy relies on to transport 90% of our goods.
Will 2020 be the year that G20 leaders finally decide to intervene and prevent the shipping industry from causing additional risk to the global political, economic and environmental system?
The current patchwork approach is clearly not working.