Removing the obstacles to carbon reduction

A binding agreement on targets to reduce carbon emissions from shipping struck at COP21 would be a disaster for the IMO. That this is very unlikely to happen does not detract from the risks that IMO’s ability to legislate on carbon is hollowed out by a combination of NGO lobbying and industry inaction.

The organisation has been under pressure for some years, over regulation both hastily constructed and ill-considered (the ballast water management convention) and rules decades in the making with a raft of unintended consequences (Marpol Annex VI).

At the same time, the IMO has struggled on carbon. In this case though, the cause is very clear – obstruction of the process by Non-Annex I parties to the Kyoto Protocol. I won’t name them – you can look them up – but they include some of the countries making the most noise at COP21.

They are just audible over the clamour of NGOs competing to damn the global shipping industry on the basis that it has done next to nothing to reduce carbon and should be made to pay for its inaction.

Both these parties are contributors to the problem rather than any kind of solution. They have shown no interest in co-operation in the IMO process other than to obstruct it on the one hand and criticise it on the other.

Both see money as the problem and the solution. The non-Annex I countries want the freedom to pollute as they grow economically. The NGOs from rich western countries think it is time for the biggest polluters to pay so that funds can be transferred to these ‘developing nations’ to fund clean energy projects.

No matter that many of the countries have no interest in clean energy – at current oil, gas and coal prices why should they – but they will happily take funds as long as someone is doling out the money.

One of the proposed solutions to offset shipping’s carbon footprint, a bunker fuel levy, would be a convenient way of charging the industry to pollute and raising cash but it is problematic. There is a feeling that something must be done and in the absence of anything better, this will do, but it will not.

Accepting a levy of some sort is not difficult in practice except that it implies shipping is doing something that other industries are not. If there are similar levies imposed on power generation, steel making, mining and energy then shipping could truly be said to be paying its share. And let’s not forget that share would be pretty small.

The downturn has been fortunate for the industry in one regard: the reduction of carbon emitted though reduced capacity and slow steaming. This has also masked the fact that industry already has in place carbon reduction measures whose impact is only just beginning to be felt.

The longer term effects of the EEDI in particular are only now becoming understood and illustrate the challenges of tackling emissions at source rather than once they have been made.

Addressing carbon emissions from shipping is perhaps the biggest challenge facing incoming IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim. The IMO needs to do more but what it needs is more innovative thinking rather than stone-walling on one side and cat-calling on the other.

Since the chances of a binding agreement being made in Paris are pretty low, the shipping industry might be satisfied in sitting back, having proved its point. It is a special case and like all the other special cases, it must be treated like one. That would be a mistake.

Instead, it is time for IMO to address the countries which are blocking attempts by the majority of member states who want to tackle climate change and challenge the NGOs to swap their constant refrain of criticism for a positive programme of engagement with the industry.

Not even the UNFCCC can be foolish enough set carbon reduction targets on an industry it knows nothing about, however goal-based the mechanism, but the imposition of a fund is a genuine risk. Neither would be positive for shipping, which needs a new settlement that spreads the cost and risk of carbon reduction between users and service providers.

No-one imagines this process will be as quick as the NGOs or presidents of island states would like, but how much worse it would be if the process caves in to posturing and impractical measures that handicap rather than help the sustainable development of global trade. Surely that would be an unintended consequence too far?

Neville Smith

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


  1. The heading should read carbon dioxide and not carbon. Carbon is what is dug out of the ground.

    1. What about wind , hull design, hydrogen , etc etc .
      It is a bit silly to limit yourself ( or an entire industry ) to one change if even that change still produces CO2 in vast quantity.

Back to top button