How serious are International Maritime Organization members about climate change?

2 May 2018

The April 13 agreement on greenhouse gases at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) creates a window of opportunity. “It’s about time,” some might say. The targets for reducing emissions are apparently ambitious but what precisely have the IMO members agreed to do? Is it realistic to expect them actually to do much? And when?


Twenty-one years ago, Article 2.2 of the Kyoto Protocol mandated the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to “pursue limitations or reductions” of greenhouse gas emissions. This month, on April 13, 2018, the members of the IMO agreed to an “initial strategy to reduce GHG emissions.” The agreement is being heralded by some as a landmark event, even an historically significant turning point; others are more cautious.

What did they agree to do?

The IMO press briefing reports that members adopted an initial strategy “to reduce total GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008.” Otherwise, the “levels of ambition” include getting beyond “peak GHG emissions as soon as possible” and “phasing them out as soon as possible in this century.” In short: a target, a peak, and a phase-out of GHG emissions.

There are also targets that are specifically for CO2 “intensity” – namely “to reduce CO2 emissions per transport work, as an average across international shipping, by at least 40% by 2030, pursuing efforts towards 70% by 2050, compared to 2008.” (For additional details, see an analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation.)

There are many notable issues beyond the obvious imprecision in achieving the “levels of ambition” “as soon as possible.” These include the following questions.

Would an emissions trading system - or perhaps a fee system - be feasible and effective?

Since shipping’s GHG emissions include methane and nitrous oxide, how will “total GHG emissions” be computed? How will CO2 equivalent emissions be derived?

How will the computation and averaging of CO2 “intensity” across segments – i.e. types of vessels and their cargoes – be decided?

What kinds of incentives to comply with new regulations will there be? What will the monitoring and enforcement procedures be?

What about coverage of cruise ships – which are a major source of emissions, including black carbon emissions in the ports they visit?

How will targets on black carbon emissions be added? Black carbon emissions occur as particulate matter not gas. But they are important because they are not only the second leading climate change forcing agent after CO2, they also directly impact public health and food production where ships' black carbon emissions are deposited. International shipping emissions of black carbon are especially not important in densely populated areas in port cities and along the coasts of shipping lanes because of these impacts. Perhaps the separate IMO track under way to assess measurement methods for black carbon emissions will be reflected in a separate agreement? If so, when?

What about restrictions on emissions in ports, shipping channels, and in the Arctic? All of these areas are especially vulnerable to shipping’s black carbon emissions because of the localised impact of particulate matter.

How could trade policies contribute to the achievement of the IMO’s ambitious goals? There may be possibilities at many levels of governance – including bilateral, regional, national and local, as well as multilateral. For instance, the recently agreed Canadian-EU and Mexican-EU trade agreements could be frameworks for developing emission reduction policies at the local level in ports. At the multilateral level, what could be done at the World Trade Organization in the context of countries’ maritime shipping commitments in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

Some of these questions have been on the informal agenda inside and outside the IMO for several years. Market based mechanisms (MBMs) were under consideration at the IMO beginning in 2007. Despite the work of an expert group on possible forms and effects of various MBM designs, there was no decision by a 2011 meeting that was expected to make recommendations. Instead, fuel efficiency measures were adopted in 2011 as indirect ways to achieve “reductions” in carbon dioxide emissions.

Despite concerns based on the IMO’s mixed record to date, there are reasons to be hopeful. Perhaps most importantly, there are climate change leaders among governments and within the industry:  several key European countries (France, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, as well as the European Commission, which is technically only an observer not a member), plus Australia, Canada, New Zealand and more. Support from Brazil, China, India and many other governments will also be important of course.  Although the US government opposed the April 13 agreement, this position could change after the next change in administration. The “international maritime shipping industry,” stakeholders include not only the owners and operators of ships but also ship builders, equipment manufacturers, 0insurers, bankers, and investors in shipping companies and ports. There are many among them who are already advocates of action to mitigate climate change.

What can be realistically expected?

In order to begin to answer this difficult question, it is helpful to distinguish among the short-term (one year), medium-term (about a decade) and long-term (several decades).

The IMO calendar already set for 2018 includes two potentially important meetings. One is the intersessional meeting of the Working Group on Reduction of GHG emissions, which is expected to develop a programme of follow-up actions to the “initial strategy.” Its report will be considered at the next session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) on 22-26 October. It is essential to the credibility of the entire IMO process that these meetings maintain the sense of momentum created by the April agreement.

What about the next decade?

The “initial strategy” is due to be “revised” by 2023. But there is no commitment that the revision will be more progressive and/or more tangible on key points. In any case, what happens during the remainder of the 2020s decade will depend on the specific outcomes of the review.

And what of the later period to 2050?

The carbon dioxide emissions of international maritime shipping have been projected by the IMO to increase by 50% to 250% by 2050 compared with 2008 because expected increases in the total volume of traffic (tonne kilometers) are likely to exceed improvements in fuel efficiency gains.

There is also good news, however: a wide range of potential technological and operational changes have been evaluated and found to be feasible and economical.

In addition, there are some virtually certain long-term developments. The findings of climate science research and the facts of climate change – such as sea level rise, ocean acidification, and ice melt in the Arctic – and their economic and social impacts will continue to become more dire. The international maritime shipping industry and the member states of the IMO, will be under pressure to do more, and do it faster.

In the new era of increased activity and transparency at the IMO, there will be many and diverse organisations in the international climate action community, as well as the shipping industry’s own bankers, insurers, suppliers, customers, and of course business journalists, who will all be watching closely to see if future actions are true to the IMO members' recently agreed words.


Thomas L. Brewer is ICTSD Senior Fellow and Visiting Scholar, MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research.