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IMO Delivers ‘Miniscule Progress’ on Emissions, Watered Down Decision on Black Carbon

The UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) stands accused of settling for “miniscule progress” after a key committee “recognized the need to strengthen the ambition” of its greenhouse gas reduction plan but put off firm decisions on that plan until 2023—with some key countries objecting to faster action over the same international finance concerns that hobbled the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow.

“The world is watching us,” IMO Secretary General Kitack Lim told the meeting of the organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) last week. And committee chair Hideaki Saito stressed the “urgency” of accelerating emissions cuts in light of the Glasgow Climate Pact adopted at the COP earlier in the month.

But like the COP itself, the IMO ended up kicking its toughest decisions down the road. Saito “said the committee could agree to invite interested member states and international organizations to submit concrete proposals for a revised strategy to MEPC78, next year, for consideration, but to MEPC80 (in 2023), for adoption.”

That was after the IMO’s current climate strategy was criticized as inadequate by UN Secretary General António Guterres.

“Ships emit around one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent every year. Without further action, shipping emissions are projected to reach 90 to 130% of their 2008 levels by 2050,” Climate Home News writes. “The IMO has a target of reducing international shipping’s emissions by at least 50% by 2050, compared to 2008 levels, which campaigners say is woefully inadequate and far from what is needed to limit global heating to 1.5°C.”

Against that backdrop, the MEPC result “is really minuscule progress,” and “it is not enough. We have 10 years to bring emissions down. We need to be halving emissions by 2030,” said Lucy Gilliam, shipping policy officer at Seas At Risk.

“To spend two years thinking about revising a strategy—is this incredibly tiny step a valid response to the climate crisis? We are not in climate denial, but we are in climate delay and that is dangerous.”

Clean Shipping Coalition President John Maggs added that it would take “deep cuts in emissions right now” to align the IMO’s efforts with a 1.5°C future, and the delay means “losing the effect of two years of ambition”.

Discussion during the two-day meeting last Monday and Tuesday centred on a resolution for zero emissions by 2050 put forward by the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands. Countries speaking against both the resolution and a 2050 zero-emission target included Brazil, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The EU, Georgia, South Korea, the Bahamas, and Norway supported the targets but not the 2050 resolution, The Guardian says, while a minority of countries—including Canada, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Vanuatu—backed the resolution as well.

Climate Home says the resolution also gained the support of Panama, the country with the world’s largest flag registry for ocean-going vessels. But “major emerging economies including India, China, South Africa, and Turkey objected on equity grounds. They said the strategy needed to reflect differentiated responsibilities for climate change and deliver finance to help them decarbonize, with targets based on scientific data.”

Some observers said they saw signs of progress on emission reductions in the sector that accounts for nearly 3% of the world’s carbon pollution.

“We have a clear majority for zero by 2050,” said Opportunity Green CEO Aoife O’Leary, cited by Climate Home as a long-time observer of IMO negotiations. “I’m pleasantly surprised that the COP 26 momentum is holding, although it could be better and stronger.”

“It is clear from the discussion that there needs to be greater ambition than the 50% by 2050,” added independent consultant and former IMO staffer Edmund Hughes. “Achieving an agreement about the revised strategy is an important first step. Once you have revised the strategy you will have an understanding of what the goal is.” But “governments will only go forward at the pace they want to go forward.”

The Clean Arctic Alliance (CAA) welcomed a new commitment by IMO nations to cut back on black carbon emissions, based on “voluntary use of cleaner fuels by ships operating in or near the Arctic”. But while the committee resolution had the support of more than 30 national delegations, the Alliance said, “the wording was systematically and meticulously watered down by opposing countries and shipping interests,” with opposition coming from Angola, China, India, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

“We are disappointed that in the effort to placate a small but vocal coterie of opposing countries, important substance was lost from the original draft resolution, leaving us with a watered down version,” Said CAA Lead Advisor Sian Prior. “However, what is important is that this resolution now sends a strong message that domestic and regional action to reduce black carbon emissions from ships should proceed.”