The International Maritime Organization has agreed to delay action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the shipping sector till 2023, a move that stands in stark contrast to recently agreed efforts to tackle the global warming effects of aviation.
After seven days of talks in London, delegates to the IMO backed a cap on sulphur emissions, a key source of heart-and-lung-disease-causing air pollution, and major contributor to acid rain. Sulphur emissions are not greenhouse gases. Indeed, deliberate use of stratospheric sulphate aerosols has controversially even been suggested as a form of geoengineering that would produce a ‘global dimming’ effect to offset global warming.
Instead, the IMO agreed to further monitoring of the situation and the eventual development of an action plan. In 2017, states will begin fresh talks about a possible cap, but the organisation will not begin recording emissions data till 2019. Once sufficient data has been collected, a decision could be taken in 2023.
The body first began discussing the subject of maritime GHGs in 1998, and talks on how to limit the problem were launched in 2003. In 2011, the IMO backed what transport experts say are fairly weak efficiency standards, and only for new ships.
The sector is responsible for 2.5 percent of global GHGs according to the IMO, a figure that is set to increase between 50 and 250 percent by 2050. This growth is incompatible with the internationally agreed guardrail of a 2°C increase in average global temperatures above pre-industrial times, and IMO studies have assessed that ships’ energy consumption and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions could be reduced by up to 75 percent on current levels just by altering operations and implementing existing technologies. In addition, many of these measures would actually save companies money due to reduced fuel bills.
Reductions beyond this point would require new technologies that do not exist yet. Electrification of shipping for example remains far off, as the batteries that would be required to power cargo ships are too heavy and take up too much space to be used.
But the technical challenges are not the cause of the delay. Rather, the foot-dragging has largely come from developing and emerging economies who worry that stricter regulations could limit their economic growth, dependent as it is on trade and thus shipping. China, India and Brazil are key antagonists, but so are least developed and small island states—some of the countries most likely to be affected by climate change and its accompanying rise in sea levels. This is because much of the global shipping fleet is registered in such countries.
Both maritime and aviation emissions have long been excluded from UN climate talks due to the difficulty of assigning such cross-border emissions to any particular country. As a result, work toward GHG mitigation in the two sectors has been left up to their respective UN agencies, the IMO and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which last month secured a globally agreed timeline to limit emissions.
The British Columbian government for its part is proposing that replacing conventional bunker fuels with liquefied natural gas (LNG) for ships that dock at provincial ports would go a long way to reducing greenhouse gases from the marine sector. GHGs from ships docking at BC ports amount to some 70 gigatonnes a year, more than the province’s total annual emissions from all sources.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.