The IMO’s MEPC71 talks in London last week made some significant progress, but the organisation still has a long way to go in taking action on climate change
When the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) concluded its 71st session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC71) last week in London, it had managed to agree upon a plan which will form the basis of the first substantial attempt by the organisation to tackle climate change.
Representatives from over 170 countries were present at the talks, which created a seven-step outline to tackle the decarbonisation of the shipping industry. The outline comprised emission scenarios, vision, ambition, candidate measures to achieve greenhouse gas cuts, R&D/capacity building, periodic reviews and follow-ups ahead of a revised climate plan strategy for 2023.
Aside from the agreement, the committee was encouraged by positive action from some of the big hitters in the shipping world. China and India expressed strong support for the use of alternative low carbon fuels, while a coalition of Pacific and European nations raised the urgency of taking in-sector action.
Yet, the overwhelming consensus following the talks is that more could be done. Some parties at the meeting were reluctant to commit to certain measures that would serve to help reduce environmental damage. Proposals for the shipping sector to adopt climate targets that meet the Paris Agreement and to decarbonise by the second half of the 21st century failed to reach a consensus, despite gaining a high level of support. Furthermore, countries including Brazil and Chile expressed concerns about the potentially negative effects of reduction measures.
A sense of urgency was lacking
Frustration at the talks
The lack of progress has understandably left some disgruntled. Commenting on the latest talks, Bill Hemmings, director of shipping and aviation at Transport & Environment, said: “Political differences over differentiation and potential costs of measures prevented substantive progress despite the very welcome presence of a strong delegation of Pacific Island nations so vulnerable to climate change calling for an ambitious reduction target and urgent measures. A sense of urgency was lacking and hopes have again been deferred to the next meeting being held in October nearly two years after the Paris Agreement.”
Others are similarly frustrated with the outcome of the talks. John Maggs, senior policy advisor for Seas At Risk, said: “Some important progress has been made but if the process is to produce a fit for purpose initial strategy by 2018 then it needs to shift up a gear and start focussing on the core issue of how to cut ship emissions deeply in the short term.”
Some, though pleased with the results of MEPC71, say that more work needs to be done. Mike Halferty, the Marshall Islands minister for transport and communications, said: “Importantly, there is large support for a vision for emissions reductions from the sector to be developed in order to send a strong signal from IMO to stakeholders. For the Marshall Islands, many other SIDS and other countries that means decarbonisation of the sector by 2050.
“It is clear that much more rapid progress will need to be made at the second working group in October in order to deliver the initial strategy by 2018, as agreed,” he added.
The current state of play
These stakeholders have very real concerns. Twenty years after the Kyoto Protocol called for the IMO to tackle climate change, the organisation is still to actually present a substantial attempt to do this, despite the MEPC convening regularly. The IMO intends to present an interim plan – offering a clear vision, measures for the short and medium-term and CO2 targets for different sectors – in 2018. However, some might argue that a deal cannot come too soon.
Shipping currently accounts for between 2% and 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to Mr Halferty, if international shipping was a country, it would be the world’s seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Furthermore, recent events could cast doubt over whether the industry is doing enough – and will do enough – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency currently rates the IMO as “not on track” to meet its sector’s fair share of CO2 cuts, which are necessary to ensure that global warming stays below two degrees Celsius. Furthermore, according to a recent study by CE Delft, efficiency of new ships fell in 2016. The findings seem ironic given that one of the IMO’s own studies into greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 found that by 2050, CO2 emissions from international shipping could increase by between 50% and 250%.
The IMO, aside from its 2018 interim deal and 2023 plan, has set the next round of climate talks for October this year. If the IMO does not move significantly on from the tentative steps made last week, it may find that the job of decarbonising shipping is taken out of its hands altogether.