UN Shipping Agency Announces Plans for Developing Emissions Reduction Strategy

3 November 2016

The UN’s shipping body has confirmed plans to develop a strategy for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the sector, with an initial version of this plan to be confirmed by 2018 and a final version due in 2023.

Negotiators met in London from 24-28 October for the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), aiming to take steps that would help tackle the climate-warming risks from a growing demand in the maritime sector.

The planned strategy will be developed following a roadmap for the years 2017-2023, which will include taking on more research into the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, along with tying in these efforts and others with the ongoing work to implement previously-agreed steps on improving ships’ energy efficiency.

The news comes after previous attempts to set an emissions target for the sector had repeatedly hit roadblocks, with those countries pushing against it arguing that more data is needed in order to do so. (See BioRes, 29 April 2016)

Similar to aviation, shipping-related emissions were ultimately not covered under the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change, despite having been discussed earlier in the negotiations. (See BioRes, 13 December 2015)

Data system

As an early step in considering future action on emissions, the UN body agreed last week on a mandatory data collection system on fuel oil consumption, which would apply to all ships that are of at least 5,000 gross tonnage and will take effect from 1 January 2018. A draft version of the system was already confirmed in April. (See BioRes, 29 April 2016)

UN officials say that collecting this data will help inform upcoming policy deliberations, especially given that vessels of this size together produce 85 percent of shipping-related carbon emissions.

The new rules on data aim to capture a series of elements: consumption of each individual fuel type; how far a ship has travelled; number of “service hours” at sea; along with design cargo capacity. The latter three elements are meant to help indicate a ship’s energy efficiency.

Flag states will process this information, transmitting it to the UN agency along with providing compliance documentation for the ship, assuming the data has been reported appropriately. The IMO will then be tasked with preparing a report based on this information for the MEPC, though identifying information involving ships will be removed.

How useful this data is will depend on developing the right guidelines, some officials say. The European Commission, for example, noted in a factsheet that while the 28-nation bloc is pleased with the move towards data collection, a “sufficiently robust” scheme will need to be in place.

That task has been set for the next MEPC, scheduled for May 2017.

Sulphur emissions cap

Notably, the committee also agreed last week to cap the level of global sulphur in marine fuel – set at 0.5 percent mass/mass (m/m) – which would take effect at the beginning of 2020. The new global limit follows a prolonged effort dating back several years, and includes exceptions in case of life-threatening situations at sea; ship safety; or damaged equipment.

The sulphur decision has been touted by IMO officials as being particularly significant for both environmental and public health reasons, given that sulphur emissions can lead to the production of acid rain. Using sulphur-heavy fuels can also lead to the release of “fine dust” that studies say can have severe implications for respiratory and heart health, especially in seaside cities and towns.

“The reductions in sulphur oxide emissions resulting from the lower global sulphur cap are expected to have a significant beneficial impact on the environment and on human health, particularly that of people living in port cities and coastal communities, beyond the existing Emission Control Areas,” said IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim.

The new limit is separate from those in the above-mentioned “Emission Control Areas” (ECAs), which have been in place for nearly two years and cap sulphur limits in various designated areas at 0.10 percent m/m.

Shipping industry groups, including the International Chamber of Shipping, had warned that the move to set a global sulphur limit could lead to a significant increase in costs, given their estimates that low-sulphur compliant fuel oil will be much more expensive than the residual fuel that ships currently burn.

The ICS had therefore been among those calling for a clear outcome on the subject at the MEPC meeting, including on timing, in order to have enough warning for the industry to make the necessary adjustments.

Various environmental groups lauded the IMO decision, while also calling for additional clarity on how it will be put in practice.

“This decision reduces the contribution of shipping to the world’s air pollution impact from about five percent down to 1.5 percent and will save millions of lives in the coming decades,” said Bill Hemmings, who is the shipping director of Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment.

Need for action

Over the years there have been increasing calls from climate officials and observers for developing rules that will help curb harmful emissions from international transport sectors, particularly in light of studies which suggest that these could increase astronomically in the coming years.

A 2014 study by the IMO suggested that carbon emissions from the sector could rise by anywhere between 50-250 percent by 2050.

Already for the 2007-2012 period, shipping made up just over three percent of global carbon emissions, along with representing 2.8 percent of annual greenhouse gases as measured by their “carbon dioxide equivalent,” a standardised unit that helps demonstrate the effects of different greenhouse gases.

The challenge has been heightened given the role of the sector in the global economy. Shipping is by far the top carrier of global trade, with the International Chamber of Shipping estimating that approximately 90 percent relies on maritime transport.

The IMO already has mandatory measures in place on energy efficiency, agreed in 2011 and in force since 2013. Those were welcomed at the time as a landmark development, given that it was the first global, binding effort aimed at reducing emissions from an international industry sector. (See Bridges Weekly, 20 July 2011)

Climate governance context

UN officials said last week that the developments at MEPC, while a promising start, still need to be followed by additional, concrete steps that will help answer the climate challenge.

“Welcoming these important steps, the Secretary-General calls for urgent and ambitious action to limit the greenhouse gas emissions from global shipping,” said a spokesperson for outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

Indeed, the past month has seen a series of other promising advances on climate action. These include the news that the Paris Agreement on climate change would enter into force on 4 November; the addition of hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), a potent climate-warming gas, to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer; and the agreement on an international carbon-offset system for civil aviation. (See Bridges Weekly, 6 October 2016, 20 October 2016, and 13 October 2016, respectively)

ICTSD reporting; “Mayday, Mayday: UN’s shipping body needs a climate compass,” CLIMATE HOME, 31 October 2016; “UN shipping chief warns of industry’s rising climate impact,” CLIMATE HOME, 24 October 2016.

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