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International Shipping Meeting Debates Carbon Target, Arctic Ban on Heavy Fuel Oil

With a key committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) meeting this week in London, UK, the international shipping industry is under mounting pressure to get its greenhouse gas emissions under control and address its use of the heavy fuel oil largely responsible for “black carbon” particulate pollution in the Arctic.

If present trends continue, international shipping could account for nearly one-fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the BBC reports. Already, it emits about 1,000 megatonnes of CO2 per year, more than the entire German economy.

But during this week’s meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee in London, the United Kingdom and other European countries were expected to turn up the heat on shipping to reduce its carbon emissions 70 to 100% from 2008 levels by 2050.

After intense lobbying at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris in 2015, international shipping and aviation both managed to keep themselves outside a landmark global agreement designed to get the world on a path toward controlling the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Now, former UN climate secretary Christiana Figueres, one of the architects of the Paris deal, is warning that shipping must develop a decarbonization strategy or “end up like the global coal industry and lose its ‘licence to operate’—both socially and financially,” BusinessGreen reports.

“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,” Figueres told media last week. “If it were a country it would be the sixth-largest emitter in the world.”

She added that shipping “can be part of the solution,” with a “whole lot of levers” to reduce emissions. BusinessGreen says those opportunities include technological innovation, ongoing replacement of shipping fleets, and lower-emission fuels.

“The possibilities are there,” Figueres said. “They just have to embrace them.”

In a New York Times op ed last week, Figueres and Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine charged that progress so far by the IMO “has been agonizingly slow, and the group’s timetable—to develop an ‘initial strategy’ [this] week and a plan by 2023—is similarly dilatory.” They point to solutions for the sector that have already been identified and note that the Marshalls, a small island state that also hosts the world’s second-largest shipping registry, was the first to propose an industry-wide emissions target.

Figueres and Heine noted that nearly 50 countries have signed on to the Tony de Brum Declaration, which calls for urgent action on shipping emissions. “Countries truly committed to climate action will not accept anything less than a strong deal,” they wrote. “Delaying action until 2023, as some have suggested, is waiting too long.

Several of the countries backing the de Brum Declaration have been vocal in their support.

“We call on the global shipping industry to get behind these proposals—not just because it is in their interests to do so, but because it is the right thing to do,” UK Chamber of Shipping Secretary-General Guy Platten said late last month.

“The public expects us all to take action,” he added. “They understand that international trade brings prosperity, but they rightly demand it is conducted in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. We must listen to those demands, and the time for action is now.”

Norway and New Zealand also joined the call with public statements leading up to the IMO meeting.

On the other side, “a group of nations led by Brazil, Saudi Arabia, India, Panama, and Argentina is resisting CO2 targets for shipping,” BBC notes. “Their submission to the meeting says capping ships’ overall emissions would restrict world trade. It might also force goods on to less efficient forms of transport.”

But “this argument is dismissed by other countries which believe shipping could actually benefit from a shift towards cleaner technology.”

The IMO itself has been accused of a lack of accountability and transparency in its response to the climate crisis, BBC adds. “The Paris temperature goals are absolute objectives,” said a spokesperson for the Clean Shipping Coalition. “They are not conditional on whether the global economy thinks they are achievable or not.”

In its coverage leading up to the London meeting, InsideClimate News noted that this will be the first time the IMO has officially discussed regulating heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Arctic. Safety and environmental concerns had already led to the product being banned in the Antarctic in 2011.

“Heavy fuel oil—the molasses-like sludge left after the oil refining process—is among the dirtiest fuels on the planet, and yet its use by ships is widespread in the Arctic, a pristine environment where it could do significant harm,” InsideClimate explains. “Burning the fuel contributes to climate change, and a spill in Arctic waters would be a nightmare for emergency response coordinators. But it’s cheap, and attractive for ships making long hauls, the kind of traffic on the rise as climate change makes Arctic shipping easier.”

A proposal from Finland this week, co-sponsored by Germany, Iceland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United States, calls for HFOs in the Arctic to be banned by 2021, CBC reports. “A single HFO spill could have devastating and lasting effects on fragile Arctic marine and coastal environments,” the proposal states. “In addition, Arctic shipping is projected to continue to rise, thus increasing the risk of a spill.”

A recent report by the International Council on Clean Transportation identifies Russia as by far the largest user of HFOs in the Arctic, followed at some distance by Canada, Denmark, Bahamas, Panama, and The Netherlands.

While ICN says President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau jointly called for an HFO phasedown in late 2016, Canada has since been less supportive of an outright ban. A document submitted to this week’s meeting by Canada and the Marshall Islands acknowledges that “the threat of an accidental oil spill in Arctic waters remains the most significant threat from ships to the Arctic marine environment,” but still urges the IMO to consider “economic and other impacts to Arctic communities associated with the restriction or phaseout of heavy fuel in Arctic waters.”

“Canada is in a strange position,” said Sian Prior, lead advisor for the Clean Arctic Alliance, with a need to balance Indigenous communities’ environmental concerns against the cost premiums that could result if shipping costs increased. But even so, “a ban is the simplest and most effective mechanism for mitigating the consequences of a spill and reducing harmful emissions.”

In late March, veteran climate reporter Ed King was out with a solid overview of the issue on the table at the IMO.