Did shipping just fail the climate test?
Olaf Merk 24 April 2016

Shipping did not figure in the historical Paris agreement on climate change finalised in December last year. Rightly so, according to many in the industry, as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) would be the appropriate organisation to deal with this. Last week was the first official occasion since the Paris meetings for the IMO to discuss about it. Did shipping nations rise to the occasion and come up with far-reaching proposals “in the spirit of Paris”?

Before we answer that question, just a bit of recent history. The question whether shipping should be mentioned in the Paris agreement was one of the hot potatoes. Or: the elephant in the room, as one the the environmental groups called it. The 1997 Kyoto agreement mentioned shipping and left it to the IMO to develop measures. The Kyoto agreement expires in 2020 hence the need to come up with something new. Shipping being a global activity, nation-states do not take these into account in their national targets. This makes shipping – and aviation – fundamentally different from all other sectors that are all part of the nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Hence the discussion on whether shipping should be mentioned in the Paris agreement. A discussion that was bumpy: shipping was originally in the concept-agreement, then out in the beginning of October, back again the end of October – and in a melodramatic turn of events dropped from the final text three days before the closing of the COP21. Several shipping companies and associations publicly deplored this sudden absence of shipping in the text and called for the shipping sector to translate the “spirit of Paris” into measures at IMO level.

Last week the 69th meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the IMO took place, the official platform to propose measures to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from shipping. Various interesting points on the agenda, most importantly the question whether shipping should adhere to a target for mitigating shipping emissions, e.g. in line with the “well below two degrees” formula of the Paris agreement.

How about the outcome? The IMO seemed pretty happy, judging by their self-congratulatory tweets and press messages: a mandatory system for monitoring CO2 emissions from ships was approved, important progress on the same day that 175 countries signed the Paris agreement. Important? Sure, it is widely understood to be the basis on which eventually a market-based mechanism, such as a bunker levy, could be based. Revolutionary? Hardly. It is just one of the steps that could eventually lead to something more. Disappointing? Certainly, this was the minimum you would have expected. A discussion on a possible emissions target for shipping in line with “well below two degrees” global warming, or at least an ambition to prepare for such a target, did not lead to any conclusion except for re-discussing it next MEPC in October. The “Paris momentum” seemed to have gone lost on the shipping ministries’ representatives at the IMO.

Who is to blame? Not the IMO. The new secretary-general Kitack Lim was ambitious enough and publicly stated the likelihood of some sort of emissions target for shipping; quite a change after his predecessor who did not want to hear about it, as it would assumedly harm trade. No blame to the shipping industry either. Their representatives, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), actually submitted a smart proposal that – if enacted – would come close to an emission target for shipping. So, the ones to blame are the countries that all too quickly forgot the solemn promises of their heads of state in Paris.

Is that all? Not entirely. At the core is the systematic difficulty to regulate shipping in isolation from other societal interests. The same group dynamic and peer pressure to live up to a historic occasion that led 195 nations to agree to a “well below two degrees” pathway for global warming in Paris, should have worked last week in London. Except that it did not; because it was not the same political pressure cooker, it was more than four months later and it was a meeting among friends that understand all to well the shipping sector. The rumour has it that the same shipping organisations that publicly deplored that shipping was dropped from the Paris text, actually actively lobbied to get this achieved. Considering the outcome of last week’s MEPC, one can only too well understand why.

A global industry like shipping needs global solutions – that is one of the mantras one often hears. Of course, but the impatience of certain regions is understandable. A carbon tax levied in EU ports, or a bunker levy charged in EU bunker facilities is not unimaginable. Last week’s MEPC meeting might – unintentionally – have made this a more realistic prospect.

Olaf Merk

Olaf Merk is ports and shipping expert with an international organization. This is his personal blog and the opinions are expressed are his own, not that of any institution he is affiliated with

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