Member countries of the United Nations specialised agency charged with regulating the shipping industry, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), adopted the first greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction framework for the shipping industry. This decision came at the 72nd session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) held in London from April 9-13.
The Initial Strategy adopted by IMO member countries has set a target of halving greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from ships by 2050 vis-a-vis emissions levels in 2008. This move brings the shipping industry closer in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement signed by over 190 countries in 2015, but to which the shipping industry (like the aviation industry) is not bound.
Some 80% of the volume of global trade is carried by ships. The phenomenon of mega-ships has seen a doubling in container ship capacity, and improvements in engine efficiency have increased the ability to travel longer distances in shorter time. However, the industry is estimated to account for 2-3% of global GHG emissions, including carbon dioxide and sulphur. A study entitled “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Global Shipping: 2013-2015” found that CO2 and other emissions from ships were increasing, despite increases in efficiency. Aside from the very real climate impact, emissions from ships have public health risks for persons who live on or near the coast.
So what was decided?
Under the Initial Strategy, IMO States agreed:
- To reduce total annual GHG emissions from international shipping by at least 50% compared to 2008
- The peak and decline of GHG shipping emissions completely by the end of the century
- To reduce the carbon intensity of ships through implementation of further phases of the energy efficiency design index for new ships
- A working group will develop a program of follow-up actions to the Initial Strategy, and will consider ways to reduce shipping GHG emissions in order to advise the committee and will report at the next session of the MEPC in October 2018
- The Initial Strategy is to be revised by 2023.
As noted by the IMO, achievement of these targets will require continued innovations in shipping design and technology to maximise energy efficiency and decarbonisation through use of alternative and renewable energy sources.
Agreement on the Initial Strategy did not come easy and reflects a compromise. Small Island Developing States, China and the European Union for example, had advocated for a more ambitious emissions reduction target of at least 70%, which scientists argue would put the sector more on track to meeting the Paris Agreement goal to limit global temperature increases to well-below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Others like the US, Saudi Arabia and Brazil had argued for lower targets.
Some environmental groups have posited that the compromise target of 50% is not enough to bring shipping emissions in line with the target set out by the Paris Agreement.
Nonetheless, the Initial Strategy is an important milestone as, after years of delay, it represents the first pathway forward for reducing the shipping industry’s carbon footprint. In March this year, a mandatory data collection system for fuel oil consumption of ships also came into force.
The full IMO press release may be viewed here.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.