Countries agree on energy efficiency targets but little else, as big decisions on how to curb shipping emissions are once again deferred
Tightened energy efficiency targets and a commitment to further discuss proposed speed reduction rules were the key outcomes of the International Martime Organisation's (IMO) latest round of talks, held in London last week.
But environmental campaigners were quick to argue the results showed a "total lack of ambition" on the part of the shipping industry, which currently emits three per cent of global CO2 emissions but risks seeing its share expand to 10 per cent by 2050 unless efforts to decarbonise accelerate.
With some members and leading shipping operators calling for bolder climate policies and others continuing to push back against proposals that they fear would impose new costs on their national shipping industries, the IMO agreed to tighten energy efficiency targets for new vessels across seven ship types.
The accelerated targets for containers, general cargo ships, hybrid diesel-electric cruise ships, and LPG and LNG carriers cover about 30 per cent of ships and about 40 per cent of CO2 emitted from ships subject to energy efficiency regulations.
The measures could reduce CO2 emissions by 750 million tonnes of CO2 cumulatively from 2022 to 2050, equivalent to about two per cent of all emissions from the industry over that time period, according to an analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation.
The IMO also committed to considering additional requirements for new ships after 2025 and looking at new efficiency requirements for in-use vehicles at the next meeting, fueling hopes standards could be strengthened as investment in cleaner shipping technologies steps up.
"IMO's move shows that further efficiency improvements are still possible for fossil fueled ships," said Bryan Comer, senior researcher in the ICCT's marine program. "Future standards should promote new technologies like wind assist and eventually zero emission fuels like hydrogen and electricity."
However, a decision on whether to implement speed reduction targets was kicked down the road, and will now be taken up at the IMO's next GHG working group in November. The deferral of any decision on speed limits came despite a joint letter signed by over 100 shipping CEOS ahead of the MEPC74 talks calling for global speed limits at sea, which is widely seen as the most effective short-term measure for curbing the industry's emissions.
"We've seen over 100 individual shipping companies united with NGOs in calling for speed reduction, overruling the policy stance of the industry associations," said Faig Abbasov, shipping policy manager at Transport and the Environment. "The shipping industry associations no longer represent the best interests of shipping companies."
Countries who blocked further action reportedly included Saudi Arabia, the US, Brazil, and Cook Islands, with opposition to the speed reduction proposals also understood to have come from Chile and Peru.
The outcome from the meeting should provide a boost to investment in fuel efficiency measures across the sector, but it will also provide further ammunition for those shipping operators and environmental campaigners who accuse the international body of failing to deliver sufficiently ambitious climate policies.
Aviation and shipping are the only two industries to operate outside the framework of national climate action plans established by the Paris Agreement, with the IMO and its sister body the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) instead tasked with delivering new policies to curb emissions from the carbon intensive sectors.
But while the ICAO has come forward with detailed plans for an international carbon offsetting scheme, albeit one that has continued to face criticism from green groups, IMO has made much slower progress in delivering new policy proposals.
In April 2018, the IMO responded to post Paris Agreement calls for it to deliver a new strategy by announcing targets to reduce the industry's greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2050 compared to 2008 levels. As a mid-term goal, it pledged to reduce the carbon intensity of the sector by at least 40 per cent by 2030. In order to achieve these targets, it promised to produce a detailed plan for emissions reduction by 2023 as well as immediate measures to achieve greenhouse gas reductions before this.
Considering the latest negotiations in light of these targets, Tristan Smith, a shipping specialist at the UCL Energy Institute, told BusinessGreen the meeting latest was not necessarily the write-off that some critics suggested.
"There was a risk that speed limits would be removed altogether so it's useful that they've agreed to take everything forwards," he said. "It's left a lot of work to do, as there is a long list of policy options that need working through, and it's a shame we don't have clearer priorities. But we're in a reasonable position to make progress at the next meeting."
Still, Smith acknowledged that "two of the initial strategy aims are looking very dodgy", highlighting concerns about the likelihood the industry will be able to achieve emissions reductions before 2023 and reaching peak emissions as soon as possible.
"People's attention is increasingly moving over them onto objective two," Smith said, referring to the goal of reducing carbon intensity by 40 per cent by 2030. "There are two meetings in 2020, 75 and 76, and we desperately need the 76 meeting to be the absolute latest at which are agreeing measures to be implemented. If we do that, we may just get some savings before 2023."
Smith also insisted that achieving the 2030 target remains entirely feasible.
"It's realistic: even if we weren't implementing measures until 2025, it would be possible to make it, as long as we're not seeing ships speeding up," he said. "But it's essential that we see action before that, in line with the IPCC's advice is that we must be reducing emissions as soon as possible."
Without extensive action to tackle emissions, the shipping industry - which was exempted from the Paris Agreement - could see them grow 250 per cent by 2050 as trade increases, according to a 2014 study by the IMO.
A 2018 report from the OECD warned that failure to act would leave the sector emitting the equivalent of well over 200 coal power stations by 2035. The think tank called for more research into zero carbon technologies, greater transparency on carbon footprints within the industry, a carbon price for global shipping, and other mechanisms to incentivise efficiency such as ports differentiating fees based on environmental criteria.
Also last week, environmental campaigners demanded a moratorium on the shipping industry's use of Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems (EGCS), known as scrubber technology.
EGCS were seen as a possible route to ensure compliance with IMO rules which will enforce the use of bunker fuels with a sulphur content of 0.5 per cent from 2020, down from the existing limit of 3.5 per cent. But concerns over their efficacy have been thrown into sharp relief by their role in an ongoing case against cruise operator Carnival Corporation, in which multiple EGCS failures contributed to significant air and water pollution violations.
With the clock ticking, international pressure is intensifying on the IMO to take meaningful steps towards meeting its own emission reduction targets. Focus will now move on to the organisation's next session in November with hopes growing that recent calls for bolder action are finally taken on board.
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