UN agency IMO is responsible for the safety and security of shipping and the environmental impact of ships, and is the only organisation bringing all the world’s nations together to regulate marine transport.
This week is the 74th meeting of the marine environmental protection committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) with aims to halve global emissions by 2050, says an article published in The Guardian.
What is this meeting and why is it important?
The 74th meeting of the marine environmental protection committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) represents one of the best hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from a large and growing sector.
Shipping accounts for at least 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which may not sound a lot but is greater than the UK’s total: if shipping were a country, it would be the sixth biggest in terms of emissions share.
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.
Dirty fuel harmful emissions and effects
Even more significantly, those emissions are particularly harmful and is now going to be regulated for
- Emissions are mostly the result of burning heavy, pollutant-ridden fuels that are banned for their toxic effects.
- Ship fuel produces sulphur, which contributes to acid rain.
- Ships burn more than 3m 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 emits black carbon made up of unburned particles that is borne on the winds to the Arctic, where it stains the snow and increases the greenhouse effect.
What will be discussed at the meeting?
Climate change and shipping’s contribution to the same will be high on the agenda, the secretary-general, Kitack Lim, confirmed in his opening speech.
The points that will be discussed are
- 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 plan IMO 2020 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, with recent developments such as the UN’s agreement, to take steps to reduce the flow of plastic waste to the developing world.
The likely outcome and IMO blueprint
There is expected to be progress on all of the above, probably in the form of resolutions to reaffirm existing commitments and the frames of reference for a new greenhouse gas study.
The IMO also produced a blueprint for one of its main outcomes from the talks: GreenVoyage-2050, co-funded by the government of Norway, a plan to expand port management capacities in the developing world and set up demonstration projects that will help poor countries meet the goal of halving emissions by 2050.
Is that good enough?
Far from it, according to civil society groups and protesters. Extinction Rebellion activists are protesting outside the meeting in London, offering delegates deckchairs which they can rearrange as if on the Titanic – a reference to the futility of the efforts to regulate shipping so far, which have shown little progress over more than a decade.
Campaigning groups have differing demands from the talks.
- The Clean Arctic Alliance wants a ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic and moves towards a wider ban.
- A group of ten NGOs led by Stand.Earth is calling for a moratorium on the use of “scrubbers” to remove sulphur from ship exhausts, in favour of a straightforward switch to lower sulphur fuel.
- The Environmental Defense Fund wants to see zero-emissions ships on the water as soon as possible.
- Extinction Rebellion has a very specific demand: to reduce the speed of ships by 10%, which would result in a carbon saving of 30% on current levels.
Emissions control plans
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.
Kyoto protocol 1997
Part of the problem is that shipping, along with aviation, has been excluded from international talks on climate change almost from the start.
The initial reason was pragmatic – in the run-up to the Kyoto protocol of 1997, countries could not agree how international transport should be accounted for, and whether the ships’ home countries or the countries where the cargo was landed should be deemed responsible for the emissions. In order to get the agreement through, shipping and aviation were left out altogether.
Emissions risen sharply
This is effectively still the case, even though in the intervening two decades emissions from these sectors have risen sharply.
The industries have largely been left to regulate themselves on a voluntary basis, and their plans to do so have been slow in coming, low on ambition, weak on enforcement and, so far, inadequate to the scale of the problem.
For the IMO to turn that situation around this week is as unlikely as a supertanker sailing up the Thames to its headquarters, but protesters are hoping that their activities will at least draw public attention to what has so far been largely a hidden scourge of the seas.
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