Competing factions descend on London for highly charged MEPC

So the stage is set for what could be the most acrimonious gathering of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) at the headquarters of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) tomorrow. The jostling for positions in the past week shows we’re in for some long, hard days of attritional bargaining in London coming up. More’s the pity as MEPC 72 is arguably the most important session in the committee’s history, one where the future of our industry – and by extension, many have been arguing on this site, the future of the planet – is set to be debated.

There appear three disparate factions heading to the negotiating table in the British capital after Easter. First, there’s the gang of four – Argentina, Brazil, India and Saudi Arabia – who have sought to delete key parts of a draft global agreement on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is due to be legislated at MEPC. The group has deleted sections proposing to cap greenhouse gas emissions from shipping at 2008 levels and reduce them “significantly” by 2050. The four countries have also demanded that the wording on the bid to make shipping a zero carbon sector by 2075 be changed so the firm date of 2075 is replaced with “no later than in the second half of this century”.

At the other end of the spectrum are the 44 signatory countries to the so-called Tony de Brum declaration, named after a recently deceased statesman from the Marshall Islands. The declaration demands that shipping adheres to the objectives of the Paris Agreement, namely holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial level. With 44 countries now signed up to this French led initiative, the grouping is now the largest heading into the crucial IMO discussions next week.

Sandwiched somewhat uncomfortably in between these two polar opposites are shipping’s main bodies led by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). Shipping’s top lobbyists have had to tread a tricky line ahead of MEPC 72, trying to seek consensus and also compromise from governments, especially the EU.

“The very high level of ambition proposed by certain EU Member States – a 70 to 100% total cut in emissions before 2050 – is unlikely to achieve consensus support,” the ICS stated last week, comments that came in for prompt criticism.

Peter Nuttall, the scientific and technical advisor for the Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport at the University of the South Pacific, has been vocal in the past week as the industry has jostled to get competing environmental messages across ahead of the London meet-up.

“The speed at which we can now move down any decarbonization path will be directly proportional to the level of proactive political and R&D investment made in developing solutions and proportional to the time and energy wasted in procrastination, filibustering and flat world thinking by the usual hard in the sand, reactionary voices that tend to dominate otherwise rational debate and delaying real work in organisations such as the IMO,” Nuttall wrote on this site earlier this week. He called ICS’s move to seek compromise as “disingenuous” under his catchy rallying call: “1.5 to stay alive!”

What is clear is that both regulators and shippers will not stand for any intransigence. I admit to being concerned about a high profile attack on the IMO coming in a report from Transparency International due for publication tomorrow just as MEPC gets underway – this kind of broadside should have been fired before delegates touched down, it is likely to only make debate more bitter and possibly detract from the matter in hand.

For the IMO the next few days are vital for its legitimacy, something not lost on the UN body’s chief Kitack Lim who said last November “the whole world will be watching” in April when they set out a climate strategy.

“I urge you, be bold; set ambitious goals that really will make a difference,” he said. “You have a real opportunity here to do something of lasting significance. Make the most of it.”

How the differing factions overcome their differences this week will be watched very carefully by the reporting team deployed by Splash.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. Let us assume – it seems a very reasonable assumption – that few merchant ships built in the next few years will operate for thirty years.

    If we make that assumption, 2050 does not seem such an unrealistic target date.

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