Christiana Figueres joins chorus of industry and green groups urging for ambitious action to decarbonise shipping sector, as crucial IMO talks rest on a 'knife edge'
Christiana Figueres, the former head of the UN climate change secretariat and one of the architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement, has warned the shipping industry it risks losing its position as the "backbone of global trade" unless a deal to drastically decarbonise the sector is brokered at crucial climate talks in London this week.
The former UNFCCC executive secretary joined a chorus of businesses, trade bodies, and green groups late last week in calling on governments to come up with an ambitious agreement to cut emissions from the global shipping sector in line with Paris Agreement targets.
The intervention came as significant divisions remained over proposals for a new global climate plan for the industry, as the latest round of crucial International Maritime Organisation (IMO) talks enter their final week.
Figueres said shipping was now one of the last major industries left without a strategy for decarbonisation, and warned unless firm action was taken the shipping sector would end up like the global coal industry and lose its "license to operate" - both socially and financially.
"Just because shipping is not legally under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or the Paris Agreement, does not mean it does not have an obligation to take action," she said at a press conference on Friday. "If it [shipping] was a country it would be the sixth largest emitter in the world… but they can be part of the solution."
She argued the industry had a "whole lot of levers" to reduce emissions, including technological innovation, ongoing replacement of shipping fleets, and lower emission fuels. "The possibilities are there they just have to embrace them," she said.
Delegates of the IMO, the international body which governs the sector, were last week seeking to thrash out a draft initial strategy for decarbonisation ahead of the meeting of Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC).
The IMO's aim is to then have a fuller plan in place by 2023 to gradually reduce international shipping emissions over the coming decades. However, countries are divided over the level of ambition the plan should adopt.
The EU has previously said it will impose its own stricter climate standards on the shipping sector in Europe unless the IMO manages to agree a strong enough global strategy. But while European countries such as the UK, France, Germany and others have demanded the sector aim for a 70-100 per cent cut in shipping emissions by 2050, a group of countries, including Saudi Arabia, India and Brazil, have argued there should be no outright cap on emissions.
A possible compromise may end up with a the plan including a goal closer to Norway's call for a 50 per cent cut in emissions by 2050, with reports indicating a target around this level has been mooted in initial negotiating texts. However, many argue that this would still be nowhere near the level of decarbonisation needed to keep the shipping sector in line with the Paris Agreement's 1.5C or 2C temperature goals.
Speaking on Friday, Tristan Smith, an energy and shipping academic at University College London, said the negotiations were "on a knife edge".
With global trade expected to continue growing, a 50 per cent reduction in emissions against 2008 levels would not be in line with the Paris Agreement, Smith explained, adding that to keep shipping in line with the 1.5C target it needed to be zero emission by 2050.
"There are no guarantees that the Paris Agreement ambition of 2C is safe, and after one week of talks that is very concerning," he said. "It looks like we will come out of these meetings with some range or ambition, but it needs to grow massively."
Fears pervade among some national governments - with Brazil, Saudi Arabia, India, Panama and Argentina to the fore - that restricting maritime emissions or shipping speeds would have an adverse impact on global trade.
Bill Hemmings, shipping director at green NGO Transport & Environment, said a "determined minority" were blocking wider climate action in the shipping sector. "There is a danger that calls for differentiated action and to buy time will see off any likelihood of urgent action," he warned.
But speaking alongside Figueres outside the IMO's London headquarters Friday, David Paul, environment minister of the climate-vulnerable Marshall Islands, said it was a "fallacy" to suggest there were no financial or economic benefits from reducing emissions from the shipping sector.
The technology already exists in many cases to improve shipping emissions, he argued, and new innovations were improving all the time and promised to reduce costs across the sector.
"We are not being unreasonable - the opportunity is there for the taking," he said. "One day in the future, regulations and policy will change… so it is better that they do it now because there will be far more drastic costs for them to comply in future."
Some business groups have also rallied behind calls for an ambitious climate strategy for the shipping sector. The Global Shippers' Forum (GSF), which represents 40 shipping organisations around the world, covering a number of the world's major retailers, motor manufacturers, chemical industry firms, food and drink producers and other sectors, has urged the IMO to deliver an ambitious new plan.
Chris Welsh, general secretary of the GSF, said customers of the shipping industry expected the sector through the IMO to "make considerable progress" at the talks and come up with "a meaningful level of ambition".
"Shippers themselves are having to comply with their own industry initiatives and mandatory arrangements for reducing their carbon emissions in the manufacture and distribution of their products," said Welsh. "Manufacturers and retailers are already contributing considerably to achieve the wider UNFCCC requirements. The responsibility is on the shipping, aviation and other transport sectors, to come forward with measures to reduce carbon."
Technology giant ABB - which is set to begin a trialling an emission-free hydrogen fuel cell powered vessel later this year - also weighed in on the issue. Janne Kuivalainen, senior VP for technology, in the firm's marine and ports division, said the industry needed to "accelerate the transition to achieve targets to stop climate change".
"IMO should use its tools and means to the full extent, to help the shipping industry build winning decarbonisation business cases," he said. "Technology can match the needs, when the business case is there."
With the MEPC talks officially kicking off in London today, the eyes of business will be intently watching the shipping sector in expectation it comes up with an ambitious climate strategy in the coming days. Failure to do so risks not only the introduction of tighter regional emissions regulations, led by the EU, but also a backlash from many of the industry's leading corporate customers.
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