UN Shipping Agency Endorses First-Ever Target for Slashing Emissions

19 April 2018

The UN’s international shipping agency has endorsed a landmark target of cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the sector by at least 50 percent from 2008 levels by mid-century – its first goal of this kind. Countries will need to flesh out the details of this plan over the coming years, with the objective of adopting a more detailed final version in 2023.

Negotiators agreed on the initial plan during a two-week meeting of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) in London. Along with adopting an initial goal for cutting emissions, the committee also agreed to develop a list of steps that the sector can take towards meeting this goal, along with discussing other subjects such as how to prepare for the entry into force of a cap on sulphur in marine fuels by 2020. 

“We stand here at one of the most historic moments in IMO when, for some years now, the global community brought nations together in a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change,” said IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim at the start of the latest MPEC deliberations. 

“As a member of the United Nations family, IMO is encouraged by the spirit of the Paris Agreement and fully committed to further limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping, bearing in mind the successful progress which has been achieved to date,” he added. 

The Paris Agreement is the landmark UN climate accord, adopted in 2015 and in force as of November 2016. It does not cover shipping or aviation, with the climate dimensions of those sectors instead left to the relevant international bodies. 

Given the rising levels of emissions from these two transport sectors, climate watchers say that curbing shipping and aviation emissions will be key towards supporting the Paris Agreement’s own climate action goals – particularly its target for keeping global temperature rises limited to two degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, and ideally within 1.5 degrees. 

The IMO has previously adopted mandatory measures in 2011 targeting ship’s energy efficiency, along with endorsing steps for the collection of fuel use data and curbing the sulphur content in such fuels. (See Bridges Weekly, 20 July 2011 and 3 November 2016

Preparing for 2023

Under the 2016 IMO roadmap for developing an emissions cutting target, the UN agency is now due to develop a final strategy and related measures by 2023 – a goal that climate officials and environmental agencies have both welcomed as an opportunity to pursue even greater ambition in curbing sector-wide emissions. (See Bridges Weekly, 3 November 2016

Some IMO members, such as the European Union, had called for the IMO to endorse steeper emissions cuts by mid-century. The target of “at least” 50 percent announced last week was a compromise between requests for longer phase-out periods and lower cuts to emissions from some actors, and requests from others such as the EU for slashing emissions by 70-100 percent by 2050. Officials say that balancing the developmental needs of some countries – which could suffer adverse economic effects from emissions cutting requirements – will also be a key consideration going forward. 

“While the EU had sought a higher level of ambition, this is a good starting point that will allow for further review and improvements over time,” said Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU’s Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action, and Violeta Bulc, the EU’s Commissioner for Transport, in a joint statement. 

UN climate officials similarly suggested that the IMO process, given the five additional years to hammer out relevant details, will be a valuable window to craft a more comprehensive, hard-hitting solution. 

“I call on all nations to build on this achievement and use the review mechanism enshrined in the strategy to step up the level of ambition in 2023 when the strategy will be reviewed in light of the new science and available solutions,” said Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, also known as UN Climate Change). 

The IMO’s initial target has been welcomed both by international groups representing the shipping sector, as well as by environmental organisations who have said that it constitutes as a valuable first step. 

“We are confident this will give the shipping industry the clear signal it needs to get on with the job of developing zero CO2 fuels, so that the entire sector will be in a position to decarbonise completely, consistent with the 1.5 degree climate change goal,” said Peter Hinchliffe, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping, an industry group. 

Hinchliffe also suggested that the “at least 50 percent” goal was “ambitious” in itself, particularly given trade growth projections. The vast bulk of world trade is transported via ships, with the International Chamber of Shipping suggesting that around 90 percent of trade is seaborne. 

Environmental groups and researchers have also flagged the importance of taking steps to curb emissions in the short term, along with preparing for longer term objectives. 

“We have an important agreement, and this level of ambition will ultimately require a sector-wide shift to new fuels and propulsion technologies, but what happens next is crucial,” said John Maggs, a senior policy advisor at Seas At Risk who also heads the Clean Shipping Coalition (CSC). “The IMO must move swiftly to introduce measures that will cut emissions deeply and quickly in the short term. Without these the goals of the Paris Agreement will remain out of reach.”

The CSC is a group of NGOs working on the environmental dimension of the shipping sector. Seas at Risk also brings together various NGOs, based in Europe, with similar aims. 

“The IMO’s meeting agenda for the week was ambitious, as it included items for greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, and fuel use in the Arctic region – all of them posing important and urgent challenges. On the other hand, it does not inspire optimism that the IMO is still working on an ‘initial strategy’ for addressing greenhouse gas emissions 26 years after the initiation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and 21 years after the Kyoto Protocol named the IMO as the responsible venue for addressing international maritime issues,” said Thomas Brewer in comments to Bridges. 

Brewer is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) and a Visiting Scholar, MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (MIT/CEEPR). (Editor’s note: ICTSD is the publisher of Bridges

“Of course, to be grounded in reality, one must always remember that the IMO is a membership organisation with 173 national governments, which represent highly diverse interests and have divergent perspectives about what to do about climate change generally. As for the future, like other international organisations, the IMO is entering a new era in which key questions are whether and how the EU, Canada, the Nordic countries, China, India, and other countries will play leadership roles while the evidence about climate change and shipping's contribution to it continues to be compelling,” Brewer added. 

UN climate talks coming up

The IMO news comes just weeks before UN climate negotiators are due to convene in Bonn, Germany, for their mid-year negotiating session. 

The Bonn talks are set for 30 April to 10 May and feature a packed negotiating agenda, in light of some key deadlines in place for later this year. The meeting will aim to lay the groundwork for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Twenty-Fourth Conference of the Paris (COP24), which will be held this December in Katowice, Poland. 

For example, negotiators at this year’s COP are due to finish elaborating a “rulebook” for implementing the Paris Agreement. At Katowice, UNFCCC parties are also due to conduct an initial review of their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which are their domestic plans for meeting the Paris Agreement’s climate goals. In 2023, there will be a “global stocktake” of these NDCs, with the goal of making them even more robust – a timeframe that coincides with the IMO’s deadline for finalising its shipping emissions strategy. (See Bridges Special update, 19 November 2017

ICTSD reporting.

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