Rather than apologise to legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, I should probably start by apologising to the IMO. Like fellow Splash columnist Andrew Craig-Bennett, I too worked on Lloyd’s List some years ago, alongside former editor Michael Grey.
I was not encouraged to be nasty to the IMO, but certainly my youthful exuberance was tolerated as I biffed and bashed the organisation and its member states for the glacial pace of its bureaucratic process.
Luckily that copy mostly resides behind a dusty paywall and these days troubles few readers, but I was lucky enough to witness the birth of Emission Control Areas, Common Structural Rules and other milestones, though only from the back of plenary where the NGOs sit.
It turns out this was the best place to be, as they would tell you what was actually happening rather than my having to plough through interminable docs or wait for the official reports. Useful too, as at one point my infractions were so many that the secretariat cut me off altogether and I had to use a mole.
These days, the job is made much easier by the intense media interest around the IMO’s environmental meetings – though it is rarely as strong for the just as critical safety ones. A blizzard of press releases before, during and after MEPC 72 has left us in no doubt of what was achieved in London last week.
And though my natural cynicism won’t quite allow me to join the chorus of industry approval, I think I have finally learned to stop worrying and love the IMO. This has happened, not because of what the agency does – it remains a monolithic testament to law-making at the lowest common denominator – but how many a vocal minority now see it.
Criticising the IMO for being slow, old-fashioned, riven by division or otherwise unfit for purpose is like criticising the rain for being wet.
The IMO was never designed to be a crucible of technology innovation for the maritime industry. It is, in reality more like a messenger boy, sent by governments to collect the bill for shipping’s indiscretions.
Its attempts to develop concepts such as eNavigation are textbook examples of why innovation cannot be left to regulators. There are maritime domain experts a plenty in the IMO, but that does not mean the body itself can develop new concepts in anything like the timescale that technology now moves.
But crucially the IMO is not a brake on innovation either, nor does it work to prevent any section of the maritime industry from innovating. As I understand it, there is nothing to stop a shipowner employing any new technology they choose, providing flag state and class approve it in accordance with their rules and applicable regulations.
Want to use an AI-based navigation system? Fill your boots. A drone to clean the barnacles off the hull? Go ahead. Want to cut your fleet’s CO2 emissions to zero using nano-technology? They’ll probably name a dolphin after you.
But accept too that there are minimum standards for safety, environmental protection, crewing and operational standards. Because there need to be.
And rather than blame the IMO for what it is not, it should rather be praised for the very direct and positive effect it has on the markets. In recent memory these effects range from the single hull tanker ban to emission control areas, ballast water management, the 2020 sulfur cap and now carbon emission reduction targets.
By raising the cost of doing business, the IMO is making it harder for poor quality operators to compete, especially where environmental groups and public opinion are strongest. This used to be almost solely the western hemisphere but is now spreading inexorably east.
IMO has saved the cycle before and now it’s possible it will do so again. With hundreds of ships likely to be scrapped rather than meet BWM and 2020, fleet capacity will fall. Once the carbon constraints start to bite (though when this might be is not terribly clear) it’s likely that a majority of ships will choose the path of least resistance and slow down to comply, lowering fleet utilisation and acting as a further prop – if not a driver – to earnings.
What remains to be seen is what happens if the industry doesn’t actually cut CO2 emissions by 50% from 2008 levels by 2050. As a goal-based regulation it’s up to the industry to deliver and as the eagle-eyed have pointed out, the agreed level is an ambition. And like elbows, we all have those.
What might happen out in the real world is potentially far worse (even ironic, since the seats at the back of IMO plenary are higher than at the front). But for now, the industry will be too busy breathing a collective sigh of relief – and perhaps raising a glass in the direction of Albert Embankment – to worry about that.