At least one small island state delegate was left with “mixed feelings” and an ambitious set of net-zero targets was left on the cutting room floor as delegates to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) reached a compromise emission reductions agreement Friday.
The two weeks of negotiations at IMO headquarters in London, UK concluded with a deal to reduce emissions 20% from 2008 levels by 2030 and 70% by 2040, then hit net-zero “by or around, ie close to 2050,” Climate Home News reports.
The maritime shipping industry carries more than 80% of global trade and, in doing so, produces more greenhouse gas emissions each year than Germany. But despite its outsized climate impact, the industry’s ambition for cutting emissions through regulation has been sorely lacking. When world leaders met in 2015 to lay out international climate targets under the Paris agreement, aiming to limit average global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, shipping industry emissions were left out.
After the latest round of talks, “the targets are less ambitious than those that international bodies including the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) consider compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5°C,” and no one agreed to anything legally binding. But “the agreement sends a signal to the industry on the direction of travel,” Climate Home writes. “Future work is planned to set out concrete measures that aim to reduce emissions, for example by introducing more climate-friendly fuel standards.”
Even the modest 2030 target the IMO adopted was seen as a “last-minute victory” by Pacific island nations, allowing some sense that the 1.5° target was still within reach.
The decision to set “indicative checkpoints” rather than firm, ambitious emission targets for 2030 and 2040, drew scathing criticism from civil society experts following the talks. The final outcome was “the latest example of a pattern of behaviour at the IMO, where climate and environment issues are addressed but not adequately responded to,” the Clean Shipping Coalition said in a release.
“There is no excuse for this wish and a prayer agreement,” said coalition president and veteran shipping emissions analyst John Maggs. “They knew what the science required, and that a 50% cut in emissions by 2030 was both possible and affordable. Instead, the level of ambition agreed is far short of what is needed to be sure of keeping global heating below 1.5ºC, and the language seemingly contrived to be vague and non-committal.”
While the world’s most vulnerable countries “put up an admirable fight for high ambition and significantly improved the agreement,” Maggs added, “we are still a long way from the IMO treating the climate crisis with the urgency it deserves and that the public demands.”
Climate Home says the negotiations pitted small island states and rich countries seeking faster, deeper emission cuts against large emerging countries, especially from Latin and South America, that were concerned about constraining global trade and harming their economies by making shipping more expensive. In the end, despite resistance, delegates agreed to look into a tax on shipping emissions, “although how much the tax should be and how the money should be spent will be fought over at future meetings.”
When it was all over, a delegate from Tuvalu declared himself “very disappointed with a strategy which falls short of what we needed,” while a Marshall Islands delegate said there’s still “much work to do to make sure 1.5 remains not just within reach, but a reality.” India expressed concern about “unrealistic targets”, while the United States countered that the agreement was “ambitious but also feasible”.
Earlier in the negotiations, delegates received a visit from Poseidon, the mythical god of the ocean, who dropped by the meeting site “accompanied by two desperate, dripping, merpeople” as international delegates “sipped their drinks and munched on canapés to celebrate the first day” of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee,” Ocean Rebellion said in a release.
“Appalled by the state of the dying Ocean and the IMO’s failure to offer any environmental help, Poseidon had swum up the Thames, holding his nose as he passed the nearby House of Commons, to make a last minute plea to the IMO,” the protesters wrote. After receiving no response to a letter to IMO Secretary General Kitack Lim, Poseidon was left “with no choice but to leave his watery realm to infiltrate the IMO HQ and, as Head of State of 71% of the earth’s surface, directly make his commands known.”
“Our oceans are overheating,” Poseidon proclaimed. “The seas are acidifying. The ocean oxygen needed for humans and merfolk to breathe is disappearing. Our majestic merfolk are being trapped in all sorts of discarded rubbish and caught by lost containers. Plastic pollution litters the beaches and the seabed and is snaring sea life. The shipping you regulate is a major contributor to this, with spills of oil, plastic nodules, ghost nets, chemicals, and food waste all creating a toxic pollution mix which is playing a major part in climate and nature collapse.”
The IMO did take a slow, halting step toward regulation last year when it implemented a new rule requiring ships to calculate a carbon intensity index, though that requirement has been criticized by several countries. Although successfully introduced air pollution requirements to reduce sulphur emissions in 2020, those actions have not translated into success in limiting climate pollution, says Carbon Brief.
Until now, the IMO’s only initiative to cut carbon emissions was a 2018 target calling for a 50% reduction by 2050. Scientists said that fell far short of what’s needed to meet global decarbonization goals.
“Shipping’s climate impact rarely gets the same attention as planes or cars. But it’s still a major polluter,” reports Bloomberg. And “seaborne trade is expected to get even bigger between now and 2050, making the industry’s energy transition—or lack of—all the more important.
IMO delegates held pre-meetings before the agency’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) convened last Monday to look at what goals the industry should adopt. Bloomberg said a draft document produced from the talks indicated an agreement to reach net-zero by 2050 and envisioned the “indicative checkpoints” at decade intervals to ensure earlier emission cuts.
But the checkpoints still fell short of similar proposals from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union, and like the final agreement, they were non-binding and unenforceable.
“The draft doesn’t go far enough. Net zero isn’t enough—it needs to be zero emissions,” said Albon Ishoda, the Marshall Islands’ special envoy for shipping decarbonization. “We need this sector to align with a 1.5°C trajectory.”
But an evaluation of IMO decarbonization policies by Teis Hansen of the University of Copenhagen and Hanna Bach of Sweden’s Lund University concluded that the agency has not been effective at reducing shipping emissions, largely pursued a mix of inconsistent and fragmented policies. It found the organization is underfunded and has little in-house capacity, undercutting its ability to be forward-thinking and adapt to new technologies.
“More ambitious climate targets are fine. But the problem is that the IMO doesn’t even have the political instruments needed to achieve its former objectives,” Hansen said. “We need to understand why the IMO is so short on success in this area. Because if nothing happens, this enormous industry will account for a larger and larger share of global CO2 emissions.”
Heading into the meetings, the MEPC was expected to consider policy options for cutting emissions, like carbon levies and technological fixes. The carbon intensity index rule, however, was unlikely to be overhauled despite its unpopularity, said the Loadstar.
Historically, the shipping industry has been “extremely reluctant” to adopt ambitious climate measures, Maggs told CNBC, and IMO watchers also expected resistance from “usual suspects” like Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. “It will be very difficult to persuade them,” Maggs said.
Meanwhile India, along with Argentina, Brazil, and other Latin American countries, were known to be “most vocal” against measures to tax shipping emissions, which they say could harm trade, reported Climate Home News.
Changes in shipping costs are indeed likely to affect small island developing states and least developed countries to a greater degree because of their reliance on imports—they already pay around double what developing countries do for the transportation of traded items. Advocates for a just and equitable transition are therefore calling for effective policies to offset those impacts in any decarbonization targets the MEPC sets, states the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD).
“Special attention should be paid to regions which are uniquely and acutely exposed to a global increase in transport costs to ensure that no one is left behind by the transition to zero-emission fuels,” UNCTD writes.