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Pressure Mounts for Emission Cuts, Speed Reductions in International Shipping

With a key International Maritime Organization (IMO) committee meeting in London this week to address pollution and greenhouse gas emissions on the high seas, environmental groups are warning that the UN agency is off-course in the effort to align the industry with a 1.5°C world.

“Shipping accounts for at least 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions,” enough that “if shipping were a country, it would be the sixth-biggest in terms of emissions share,” The Guardian explains. “And it is growing fast—shipping could produce 17% of global emissions by 2050, if left unchecked. About 90% of the world’s trade is carried by sea.”

And “those emissions are particularly harmful because they are mostly the result of burning heavy, pollutant-ridden fuels that are usually banned or subject to regulation onshore because of their toxic effects,” the UK-based publication adds. “Ship fuel produces sulphur, which contributes to acid rain; ships burn more than three million barrels a day of residual fuel oil, with a sulphur content more than 1,000 times that of petrol for road vehicles. The dirty fuel also releases large quantities of black carbon—soot, made up of unburned particles—that is borne on the winds to the Arctic, where it stains the snow and increases the greenhouse effect, because dark snow absorbs more heat.”

And yet the IMO has not exactly distinguished itself in its response to the climate crisis. At the 2015 UN climate conference, the IMO and its institutional twin, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), earned a coveted Fossil of the Day award from Climate Action Network-International for what was ultimately a successful bid to keep their sectors out of the Paris Agreement.

At this week’s meeting of the IMO’s environmental protection committee, which was scheduled to run through today, “there [was to be] a discussion of the IMO’s target of halving emissions by 2050, compared with 2008 levels, and of a new review—its fourth—of shipping’s greenhouse gas emissions,” The Guardian states. “Also on the table will be IMO 2020, a plan to reduce the environmental harm from sulphur by stipulating that ships can only use fuel with a sulphur content of less than 0.5%. Marine plastic pollution will be discussed, with recent developments such as the UN’s agreement, excluding the U.S., to take steps to reduce the flow of plastic waste to the developing world.”

But those conversations have been going on for a long time, and The Guardian notes they’ve produced little to date.

“The IMO first announced plans to move ships to fuels with a lower sulphur content in 2008. These plans will not come into force until next year. On greenhouse gases, the long-term target is a halving by 2050, compared with 2008 levels, but the industry is still stuck on carrying out yet another review. Shipping has largely escaped public scrutiny, as its emissions take place far out to sea, invisible to the consumers of the goods the ships carry.”

Outside this week’s meeting, however, Extinction Rebellion protesters were on hand to offer delegates deck chairs they could productively rearrange on the Titanic. “It’s only our future at stake,” said spokesperson Liam Geary Baulch. “So either the shipping industry can just keep rearranging the deck chairs…or they can tell the truth today and declare a climate and ecological emergency. They should act now by reducing emissions immediately. This can effectively be achieved through an immediate reduction in speeds.”

Ahead of the meeting, the World Wide Fund for Nature pointed to global shipping giant Maersk as a company that has set a 2050 deadline for carbon-neutral operations, backed by science-based targets in support of the goal. “Some companies are calling for a carbon price on shipping fuels to narrow the cost gap to low- or zero-emissions fuels,” writes WWF Senior Advisor, Global Climate Policy Mark Lutes, and “a growing body of technical and financial analysis is available to support ambitious action.”

But “it is not clear if the IMO is ready to take up this challenge,” Lutes adds, and “early indications are not promising. Over the past year, the IMO has made little progress towards implementing even the short-term emissions reduction measures contained in the strategy. Measures to put a price on carbon are still not formally being discussed, and the next opportunity to raise the ambition of the 2050 target will be in 2023, with the finalization of the greenhouse gas emissions strategy.”

At this week’s meeting, “high on the agenda is speed reductions for ships, which provides the largest opportunities in the short term for rapid emissions reductions,” Lutes notes. “Next are various efficiency measures, which can have some impact but will be far from sufficient to achieve decarbonization.” Hitting a 2050 decarbonization target will also require low- and zero-carbon fuels and new propulsion technologies whose development will depend on “accelerated R&D and deployment, and scaled-up deployment.”In the lead-up to the committee meeting, the Clean Arctic Alliance issued an urgent call for shippers to reduce black carbon emissions, while Stand.earth pointed to hundreds of environmental violations around shippers’ and cruise lines’ use of scrubbers as an alternate compliance tool for the industry’s 2020 fuel standard.