International Maritime Organisation agrees sulfur emissions cap but is condemned for delaying measures to cut greenhouse gases
October 28, 2016 — The world’s leading shipping organisation has been condemned by environmental campaigners and MEPs for its failure to urgently tackle the industry’s impact on climate change, after it agreed only to a partial reduction in harmful emissions from ships.
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), meeting in London, agreed to cap emissions of sulfur from ships, which are a cause of air and sea pollution, but on greenhouse gases agreed only to some further monitoring and a fresh round of negotiations. Potential measures to reduce greenhouse gases have been delayed to 2023, which campaigners said was too late.
Sulfur will be capped at 0.5% of shipping fuel content from 2020, not 2025 as some companies and countries had urged. Current levels of sulfur in maritime fuels can be as high as 3.5%.
Bill Hemmings, of the campaigning group Transport and Environment, welcomed the move: “The decision reduces the contribution of shipping to the world’s air pollution from about 5% to 1.5% and will save millions of lives in the coming decades. Now the focus should shift towards implementing this decision.”
It is not clear how the sulfur cap will be implemented or policed.
No agreement was reached on capping carbon dioxide emissions. Shipping is a fast-growing source of greenhouse gases, projected to account for 17% of global emissions by 2050, though the industry has long been omitted from international agreements on climate change, including the UN’s Paris accord signed last year and due to come into force next month.
Instead, IMO members agreed to further monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions data from international shipping, with a view to drawing up an action plan to reduce them. But that plan is not likely to be implemented before 2023. The IMO first began to make plans to reduce emissions in 2003, yet little action has been taken. Shipowners and shipping companies want to guard any data they collect on fuel consumption, seeing it as a competitive issue.
Sotiris Raptis, shipping officer at Transport and Environment, said: “This can in no way be seen as a proper response to the challenge laid down by the Paris climate agreement. The International Maritime Organisation is proposing to stall any action until 2023. The decision to delay by at least a further seven years any agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from shipping constitutes an abject failure by national governments and the shipping industry.”
Jytte Guteland, a Socialist MEP, said the agreement was not enough: “The shipping sector must play its role in Europe’s transition to a low-carbon society. Time is of the essence, and in the absence of IMO action, the EU must include ships’ emissions in its 2030 climate target. By setting up a climate fund for shipping, Europe can help industry cut carbon in a cost-effective way.”
Bas Eickhout, a Green MEP, added his support for unilateral action from the EU: “International shipping is the only transport sector not contributing to climate goals in Europe. Since the IMO will not be considering, let alone proposing, any emissions reduction measures for many years to come, our duty is to make sure that Europe takes action.”
Both shipping and aviation have been excluded from international negotiations on climate change, partly due to the difficulty in allocating their emissions to a particular country, but also because of the reluctance of both industries – which continue to grow strongly as globalized trade increases – to submit to the international monitoring that climate change regulation requires.
The aviation industry this month took its first steps toward reducing the impact of aircraft on the climate. The International Civil Aviation Organisation agreed that airlines would have to offset some of their emissions by buying carbon credits, which require investment in carbon-reduction schemes such as growing new forests and installing new renewable energy. The shipping industry has been slower to adopt such measures.
Shipping fuel is much heavier and thicker than aircraft fuel, and produces more greenhouse gases. Airlines have an economic incentive to use the lightest fuel possible, which can include bio-fuels derived from plants. But ships are capable of carrying the heavier, more polluting – and, crucially, cheaper – fuel on long voyages, so there is little economic incentive for the industry to change its practices.