IMO adopts polar shipping code, puts off emissions target

19 May 2015

The environment committee of the UN shipping body last week formally adopted the environmental requirements of a new code geared towards improving safe and sustainable navigation in the frigid waters surrounding the world’s two poles.

The Polar Code, as the new guidelines are formally known, outlines safety and environmental provisions around the design and construction, operations and manning, as well as equipment for ships operating in the Arctic and Antarctic. Such measures are intended to avoid titanic-like disasters in these fragile ecosystems.

The code is made mandatory through associated amendments adopted under both the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and is expected to enter into force in 2017.

Activity in polar waters is forecast to increase as ice and glaciers retreat in the two regions. (See BioRes, 30 October 2014)

The Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), meeting last week in London, UK, also adopted rules targeting ship oil residue, agreed to an extension of the eastern limit of the current Great Barrier Reef, and to a definition for black carbon emissions from international shipping.

Black carbon is a particularly potent climate warming pollutant formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass. Several environmental groups welcomed backing for a black carbon emissions definition, hopeful that it might spur further multilateral action in this area.

However, a bid to place a global emissions reduction target on the shipping industry was shelved by delegates, according to meeting reports.

Shipping emissions target shelved

The call for a quantifiable emissions reduction target for international shipping was put forward by the Marshall Islands. The low-lying Pacific Ocean nation, which holds the third largest shipping registry in the world, also faces an existential threat from rising sea levels linked to climate change.

“The very water that sustains us is lapping at our heels and threatening our survival,” Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum told MEPC last week, in a direct appeal to take action on climate warming emissions.

The proposal was reportedly supported by France, Latvia, and other small islands but received pushback from the US, China, and some other EU member states.

MEPC instead pledged to continue work on the implementation of mandatory energy efficiency regulations for international shipping that entered into force in 2013. Under this arrangement, existing ships must submit energy efficiency management plans, and new ships must become quantifiably more efficient by the end of the decade.

Some experts have said that such efforts, while welcome, will not be enough to keep pace with a booming industry. The IMO has suggested that GHG shipping emissions could rise between 50-250 percent under future scenarios.

The committee last week did agree to the further development of a data collection system to analyse energy efficiency, including elaborating data collection for fuel consumption, but these figures will be anonymous and not made public.

Elusive global cuts

International shipping emissions targets have proved a complex topic to navigate at the multilateral level due to the variety of commercial interests at stake.

Nearly 90 percent of international trade is moved by sea. Meanwhile, shipping accounted for an annual average of 3.1 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions between 2007-2012, according to an IMO study published last year.

In one paper released in time for last week’s MEPC session, some experts suggested that shipping emissions must be bounded in some way in order to meet an international goal of keeping the world below a two degree Celsius average atmospheric warming from pre-industrial levels.

The authors suggest that if no emissions reduction target was applied to international shipping, heightened cuts would be needed in other sectors. Among other options, the paper outlines carbon dioxide emissions budgets for international shipping.

The IMO has in the past discussed a possible market-based measure for the industry, such as an emissions trading scheme for shipping emissions, with several countries including Denmark, the US, the Bahamas, and Norway among others submitting proposals to this end. The potential project was later panned in May 2013.

Global efforts on shipping have also been taken up under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks due to be held in December in Paris, France. 

A draft text for planned Paris climate deal, set to be discussed during the first two weeks of June in Bonn, Germany, currently includes a proposal to put in place global sectoral emissions reduction targets for international aviation and maritime transport. (See BioRes, 19 February 2015)

The proposal would nevertheless shunt the responsibility of hammering out such a scheme back to the International Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the IMO respectively.  

The two regimes are characterised by different operating norms. While the UNFCCC applies under a principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) for tackling climate change, the IMO acts on a principle of “no more favourable treatment” stipulating that its rules apply to all ships equally, to avoid ships reflagging to more favourable regimes.

Some analysts suggest that if the CBDR principle was applied to shipping emissions, with countries then implementing different levels of emissions cuts, ships might move to a less demanding registry thereby limiting the climate effort.

These phenomenon have also risen in some contexts in the UNFCCC through concerns around “carbon leakage” whereby industry and its associated emissions might re-shore in the face of new climate legislation.

Discussion around an international target on aviation has proved equally as difficult, with players such as the EU prompting fierce debate in recent years over an effort to include non-EU airlines in the aviation component of its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). (See BioRes, 16 February 2015)

Some environmental groups suggested last week that the progress was nevertheless being made on international transport emissions.

“The sector is no longer out of sight out of mind and will be under increasing scrutiny. Perhaps UNFCCC processes will push [international shipping] to go beyond efficiency measures,” Simon Walmsley, marine manager at conservation group WWF, told journalists.

ICTSD reporting; “Countries fail to set shipping target,” THE CARBON BRIEF, 14 May 2015. “UN shipping body shelves emissions target,” RTCC, 13 May 2015.


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