How I learned to stop worrying and love the IMO

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.

Neville Smith

Neville Smith is director of maritime PR consultancy Mariner Communications. His fee for this column has been donated to Sailors Society.


  1. Fantastic editorial Neville, a very enjoyable read. I agree with all that you say. I think these days it is easy to bash those at the top, in positions of influence and this is a peculiarity of modern political society. Even so, the IMO must be applauded for taking the tough decisions and not prevaricating and procrastinating so as not to be forced into a decision, which is a peculiarity of modern social politics. As a quasi-political body with global influence above all we need leadership from the IMO and whilst they do not always get it right, they do lead in thought, word and deed.

    The 2020 sulphur regulations are a case in point – many think they are rushed and poorly organised but on some level you have to appreciate the fact that they did what needed to be done. Not taking this action would be akin to the muddy no-man’s-land of the much-discussed third runway at Heathrow. Everyone agrees it or an alternate proposal is necessary but nobody wants to actually take the steps necessary to make it happen. It causes too much disruption and upsets too many powerful constituents and thus is political suicide for any political party to green light. So we are left with years of hang-wringing and self-interest and no firm action but lots of talking. Kudos to the IMO for not playing politics on this issue.

    Drawing the line in the sand and leaving it up to us to make it work is, after all, basically how this is all supposed to work anyway, right?

  2. Great article, Neville.

    You are right to say that regulators should not try to innovate. I will add two examples of matters where the IMO got dragged into prescriptive detail – GMDSS and ECDIS – which prove your point.

  3. Gents – thanks for your comments.

    Andrew – ah yes GMDSS and ECDIS – very little glory there – the first done badly for the right reasons, the second badly for the wrong ones. How quickly I forget.

    Chris – I wonder sometimes if it’s just age but I think there’s a need to understand what we are complaining about rather than just moaning about everything. Let’s be honest IMO needs to be pushed and prodded but they have achieved more in the last few years than many would have expected.

  4. Neville, thanks for that article. I have been watching the IMO from the sides, for three-plus decades.
    Is someone able to do a global story of raw sewerage disposal from live stock export shipping? I know of the shipping recommendations and also of the “how can we dodge them?” saga.
    It is after all a chronic and global, ‘best forgotten’ situation out on the high seas where anything and everything can and does occur.
    How the added on-board treatment processes would add to live export costs would shed light on the real cost of animal commodities and cheap labour, together with reducing GHG emissions by the said 2050.
    And then there are the governmental subsidies; taxes (there was at one time for importing chilled meat v livestock, i am unsure now) and business political donations supporting the ‘profitable’ iindustry.

  5. With salaries not rising and no. Of staff being kept at around 20, there is huge fudging of rest hours in most ships. Few Captains would dare to stop a ship to give the staff adequate sleep around busy port schedules. The present rest hour rules are wierd, taking no cognisance of the circadian rhythms.
    Having sailed for about 30 years, have seen this profession reduced to the pits. There are too many collisions taking place with sleepless sailors at the helm . Most officers and crew are coming from remote areas having past the English test but are at sea with nuances of the English.
    Do not forget that the scrubber and other systems which I’ll be installed on oil fired engines Will increase the workload on the already sleepless sailors causing more collisions.
    After analysis of the economic versus environment impact maybe a trans Atlantic(and others) winch system pulling submersible cargo ships could be great partner to the Belt road initiative alleviating the global warming. An out of the box idea but would completely understand opposition to it.

    1. Sunil – absolutely right.

      I would like to see all PSC officials given the power to order a ship to wait for 24 hours after completion of cargo and port formalities if they suspect (mere suspicion should be enough) that one or more of her complement are short of rest, with no other paperwork, no re-inspection and no financial penalties.

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