by Olaf Merk
Maritime shipping now also has its “Paris Agreement”. On Friday, 13 April, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and its member states agreed on an “Initial GHG Strategy” for shipping. This strategy sets out an absolute target to reduce shipping emission by “at least” 50% by 2050. It also commits the sector to pursue efforts to phase out CO2 emissions in line with the objective of Paris Climate Agreement.
Is this compromise (for that’s what it is) a historic achievement or a collection of weasel words? How did we get here? And what still needs to be done? In my view, the deal struck at IMO is a huge step – for at least three reasons.
First, the IMO’s Initial GHG Strategy is the first big response of shipping to the climate change challenge since the introduction of an energy efficiency measure for ships, the Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI), in 2012. The EEDI, developed in the wake of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the predecessor of the Paris Agreement, is a binding global regulation. But it has at best a moderate positive impact on shipping’s greenhouse gas emissions,which will materialise only over the long term (given that the EEDI only applies to new ships, while the average life time of ships is more than 25 years).
Second, the new agreement makes shipping – seen as a laggard by some – suddenly look better than the aviation industry, the other transport sector that was exempt from the Paris Agreement because its emissions defy national boundaries. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), IMO’s sister body that regulates global aviation, was much faster than the IMO to respond to the Paris Agreement. However, its solution now seems less robust than what the maritime sector is now undertaking. For the moment, aviation has adopted a voluntary offset scheme but avoided to set an absolute emission reduction target as the one just agreed at IMO.
Third, shipping and IMO delegates have come a long way in their approach to combatting climate change. An absolute emission target for shipping was unthinkable a few years ago, and even two weeks ago far from certain.
In short, this commitment goes further than anything in the past or in similar sectors. And it surpasses what seemed possible only since very recently. So yes, this was probably the best possible outcome for all those who wanted shipping to align with the Paris temperature goals. Even if the Initial GHG Strategy does not quite achieve that (a 50% cut will not suffice to get shipping on a pathway to the famous 1.5-degree scenario), it sends a clear signal that the sector needs to decarbonise. This will not be without impact on how ship owners act. It will also drive technological innovation for cleaner shipping. Not least, the IMO agreement is a boost for multilateral solutions; all too rare these days.
So, the agreement on the IMO Initial GHG Strategy provides a good reason to uncork some champagne – for those who need a reason for that.
Litmus test of statesmanship
How did this little miracle happen? A combination of things was at work: A technical debate became politicised. A powerful actor threatened unilateral action. Laggards were effectively shamed. Evidence made an impact.
Politicisation took the form of the Tony de Brum declaration. This text, supported by more than 45 countries, demanded that shipping align itself with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Pushed by French President Emmanuel Macron and Hilda Heine, President of the Marshall Islands, during the One Planet Summit in November 2017 the declaration was a political masterstroke: It made shipping emissions a strategic political priority and a litmus test of statesmanship, rather than the arcane topic for shipping technocrats and corporate lobbyists it had been for so long. Intense cooperation among officials of the most ambitious countries, sailing under the flag of the “High Ambition Coalition”, provided important backup.
Another success factor was the threat of unilateral action by the EU. Lack of progress at IMO, the Europeans made clear, could lead (and can still lead) to inclusion of shipping in the emission-trading scheme of the EU-ETS. This was a rather big stick to wield: The prospect of scattered regional rather than global regulation horrifies the shipping sector. EU parliamentarians attended IMO meetings and added pressure by lending support to the European Commission’s Plan B.
A new degree of transparency
Added Into this mix was a new degree of transparency. Journalists are not allowed to report on what countries say during IMO meetings. Yet social media and leaks to media made it possible for the public to follow the positions of individual countries. Public blaming and shaming by environmental NGOs and activist Twitter accounts like @imoclimate as well as extensive coverage of country’s respective positions in the press seem to have had an effect – most of the countries less eager to commit to strong ambitions backed down in the end.
Finally, there were the facts. Over the past years, ample evidence has been collected which shows that zero-carbon shipping is possible and will create new opportunities. Innovative ship-owners demonstrated what is possible in practice, for example in Sweden. A range of studies, emanating from the research community (like or the University Marine Advisory Services, ship classification societies (like Lloyd’s Register) and policy think tanks like the International Transport Forum.
That said, much remains to be done. Finding agreement on short-term measures to reduce emissions will be a tough job. One of the guiding principles in the IMO Initial GHG Strategy is the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (“CBDR” in climate-change speak), meaning while there is a shared obligation to address climate change, not everyone can be held responsible at the same level. The introduction of this approach (adopted from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC) to the context of shipping (where all ships are treated equally, irrespective of whether they fly the flag of a developing or developed country) is likely to make discussions on the concrete measures to cut CO2 complex and heated.
But that will come tomorrow. For now, let us just enjoy a historic moment.
Olaf Merk is a port and shipping expert at the International Transport Forum.