Greg Atkinson reckons much of the criticism aimed at the IMO is misguided.
In recent months there has been an ever increasing and broad range of criticism directed towards the International Maritime Organization (IMO), much of which ranges from being mildly critical to downright brutal. Often though, these criticisms highlight that some people appear to have a poor understanding of what the IMO is and what it can, and cannot do.
Before proceeding allow me to state, by means of a disclaimer, that I am not employed by the IMO nor have I ever worked for the organisation. Furthermore, I have a natural aversion to bureaucracies in all their forms and at times, the pace at which issues seem to be processed via the IMO has also frustrated me. But this type of criticism could be directed at most large organisations, complex project structures or bodies dealing with complicated issues. Simple but wrong decisions can often be made quickly, but making correct decisions for more complex problems can often require more time.
Before expressing their displeasure with the IMO some companies could review the skills diversity of their own senior management teams
It’s important to note that the IMO is not a shipping or ocean policy enforcement agency. Rather, it is the Member States (currently 174) that need to take the necessary actions after a treaty or regulation is ratified. The IMO could for example only introduce a blunt instrument such as a carbon trading market similar to what the European Commission is suggesting for shipping, if this were agreed upon by the Member States since the IMO itself, is an organisation of Member States and its activities are controlled by them.
To improve my understanding of how the IMO functions I submitted several questions to them (via e-mail) and in response, Natasha Brown from IMO Public information Services, was kind enough to set-up a short online meeting with Frederick Kenney, director, Legal Affairs and External Relations Division.
During this meeting I came to understand that the IMO formulates the following:
- Treaties – these include the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) & International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). Treaties cover five categories; safety, environment, security, liability and compensation, pollution response and search & rescue.
- Protocols – amendments to treaties.
- Regulations – which are binding and form part of a treaty. These are often included in the annexes to the treaty since this makes it less complicated to make any necessary future amendments.
- Codes – these include the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS) and International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code).
- Guidelines – these are recommendations. Over time these may become the industry standard.
- Circulars, explanatory notes, unified interpretations.
These treaties, protocols and regulations may be the result of discussions and deliberations related to scientific research and studies, but the IMO itself is not a scientific body. This is an important point because in science the aim is to discover the truth and this is not determined primarily by agreement, but via experiment and observation. On the other hand, policy decisions are often reached via negotiation and compromise. In other words, a good policy is not the same as good science and vice versa. Therefore, in my opinion we should consider that the output of the IMO might be primarily based on scientific research, but that’s not a certainty due to the negotiations that may have been required to reach consensus amongst the Member States. Consequently I believe there should be some form of independent science-based review of proposed treaties, protocols and regulations when required. But that could be a complicated process and further delay the implementation of new policy initiatives.
In regards to how the IMO functions I often read comments from senior executives at shipping companies complaining that amongst other things, the IMO is not moving quickly enough to implement measures aimed at decarbonisation (whatever that means) or reducing emissions. These criticisms puzzle me for two main reasons; firstly, there is no force of nature that I’m aware of that has prevented ship owners proactively reducing vessel emissions and/or improving energy efficiency and to the credit of some, they have been doing this for years. I am also not aware of any IMO related reasons why the uptake of digital technologies across shipping has lagged behind other sectors and dare I suggest (and I do), that one reason for this may be due to the lack of relevant technology knowledge and experience amongst the ranks of shipping executives. So before expressing their displeasure with the IMO perhaps some companies could review the skills diversity of their own boards and senior management teams?
Secondly why do some companies, organisations and lobby groups direct their angst mainly towards the IMO alone and not at the Member States or even classification societies? Perhaps shipping companies could also engage more with the IMO rather than simply being critical when the IMO doesn’t move in the direction or at the speed they prefer? This also might be more productive than forming associations (that are often essentially lobby groups) to promote specific solutions and hire PR consultants to engage in a war of words with those who don’t share the same views.
Based on my experience it’s often been shipowners that have been reluctant to embrace emerging technologies or take part in joint research and development (R&D). Some of the loudest critics of the IMO for instance could have focused their efforts on supporting R&D at start-ups or conducting trials of new technologies as opposed to making frequent appearances on discussions panels to talk about what needs to be done…by somebody.
I’m not suggesting though that the IMO does not need to improve, make changes and adapt to a world where technologies evolve quickly, however the same could be said for most organisations and companies. When the workings of the IMO elicit criticism, then these criticisms should be made, but let’s be sure we are directing our comments in the right direction and also when possible, suggesting some ideas that will help improve how it functions.