Shipping emissions is an area that has not fallen under the rubric of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The shipping industry has, by and large, avoided scrutiny of its own contribution to climate change.
Given that the shipping industry’s infrastructure will be exposed to the vagaries of climate change in the form of sea-level rise and more weather volitality, it is ironic that the shipping industry has not reached consensus on how it should go about reducing its own greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.
Global rules for the shipping industry are set by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which came into existence in 1958. Shipping is the backbone of world trade, responsible for about 80% of the total volume of trade, and plays a significant role in ensuring global development.
Efforts to deal with shipping emissions date back to the 1980s, but little progress has been made since then. Owing to powerful commercial shipping interests, efforts to bring about change have been resisted, but change seems to be in the offing following this year’s IMO meeting, held from April 9 to 13.
The shipping industry has come up with a plan to reduce its carbon emissions by half by 2050. For some countries and activists, this is still not enough, but the happy side of this equation is that it binds the IMO to a process that was an uncomfortable commitment for the IMO for a very long time.
In the next five years, the IMO is expected to develop policies and measures to take this forward in more concrete ways.
The challenge with shipping is not only the problem of emissions, but also which country should be account- able for what ships emit, given the prevalence of notorious concessions for the shipping industry called the flag of convenience (FOC), a post-World War II legacy.
The FOC complicates the tackling of shipping emissions and their proper accounting in the global registry for GHGs. Shipowners are required in terms of international maritime law to register a ship in the country from which the ship comes, but the FOC enables owners to register ships in a second or third country – not the owner’s country – if regulations in the owner’s country are deemed to be too restrictive. As an example, Liberia and the Marshall Islands, which are not significant trading countries, have some of the largest open registers for ships. FOCs enable owners to hide the identity of the true owner of the ship, enabling the owner to escape liability for taxes, labour laws, environmental regulations and other liabilities associated with the shipping industry.
A range of options are available concerning how emissions can be allocated, but consensus on a preferred option remains elusive.
The shipping industry has resolved to place the curatorship of shipping emissions within the domain of the IMO, although attempts outside the IMO and under the UNFCCC are being made to include shipping emissions as part of the Talanoa Dialogue, a post-Paris Agreement process named after the Fijian traditional practice of consultation and consensus building.
The Talanoa Dialogue, to take place later this year, is meant to take stock of how well we are doing in reducing global carbon emissions from all sources. The picture at the moment does not generally look pretty in terms of global efforts to reduce emissions.
With the exception of the US, all IMO member countries have also ratified the Paris Agreement. Therefore, the IMO will need to align its GHG emissions reduction strategy with the Paris Agreement.
International shipping accounts for 796 mt CO2 (2.2% of global CO2 emissions). It is estimated that, by 2050, carbon dioxide emissions from the sector will grow by 50% to 250%. All scenarios project emissions in 2050 to be higher than the 2012 levels.
This indicates that the sector is not yet accounting for the limits that must be in line with our shrinking carbon budgets and meeting the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 ºC. To be compatible with the 2 ºC pathway, the GHG emissions from international shipping need to reach zero by 2070 but, to be compatible with the more ambitious 1.5 ºC pathway, the same has to be achieved by 2042.
South Africa became a full member of the IMO in 1995 and participated as a member State in the April meeting. The country’s leadership in the IMO in tackling GHGs is not on a par with its counterparts at the UNFCCC. South Africa, together with countries such as the US, China, Saudi Arabia and others, has been resisting the imposition of caps on emissions and the setting of more ambitious targets.
While a climate-lite version of the agreement has been sealed, the conditions for implementing measures for the shipping industry will have to take into account the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities – a key principle of the UNFCCC agreement – which argues that rich countries should bear most of the burden, while poorer countries’ development needs should not be stymied and that these States be paid to meet the costs of reducing emissions as a result of the dirty industrialism of rich countries.
It is fair to say the IMO has come to the party, but the devil is in the detail.