Weasel words give owners breathing space in the emissions debate

There was a convention amongst shipping journalists that one did not criticise the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO). However curious their deliberations, the IMCO was, we thought, comprised of sincere, honest and deserving people, many of them experts, who had the safety of ships and seamen (not ‘seafarers’ in those days) and the avoidance of damage to the high seas as their aims in view, as they sought to harmonise regulations between maritime states. They needed all the help that they could get.

This tradition survived the change from the IMCO to the IMO, in 1982, and was still in force in 1996, when I started writing a column for Lloyd’s List, under the guidance of Michael Grey, who stated the editorial policy of the newspaper as, “Safety at sea, and don’t knock the IMO”.

Having grown up, so to speak, in that era, I still find it difficult to avoid the habit of deference to the good and the great of international shipping, assembled in Lambeth.

This puts me in a difficulty.

Perhaps I can adopt the practice of one of greatest of historians, Edward Gibbon, and have recourse to “the obscurity of a learned language”. Cicero and Horace said what I want to say, more than 2,000 years ago.

O tempora! O mores!” and, “Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus!

I feel better now, and I hope, dear reader, that you do, too.

We must congratulate Mr Kitack Lim and Mr Hideaki Saito on getting to the end of the 72nd Maritime Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) meeting of the IMO with the organisation still in one piece, and with its member states agreeing on a text about what must be done. I will gladly buy each of them a beer; they have needed the patience of saints.

As to the agreement itself, I shall borrow a phrase from another English literary giant of the 18th century, Dr Samuel Johnson. “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Between now and 2050, merchant shipping will reduce its emissions to 50% of 2008 levels.

That is 32 years; and, I as I said before, that is longer than the design life span of almost every ship under construction, on order, or being seriously thought about, today. The economic impact of this on anyone in business today is therefore, in the immortal words of a West African ship’s agent in the early 1980s, who was replying by cable about cargo prospects, “Nil, zero, zilch!”

“2008 levels” is weasel wording; that year was not merely notable for high freight rates, with anything that floated making its fastest possible speed, but most of the ships afloat 10 years ago had been built without much thought to fuel economy or to emissions control. Most of those ships have been scrapped, and engine and hull design has made a little progress, in the past 10 years. A containership that I know quite well was burning 166 tons a day in 2008. By coincidence that was the same consumption as a steam VLCC that I also knew quite well, 20 years earlier. Today that containership is still going about her business, burning 57 tons a day.

Here is an odd thing; I don’t, myself, know a shipowner who thinks, or is acting, as if this agreement is good enough. The shipowners whom I know are all looking at cutting emissions by considerably more, and they have already started on work to achieve this. The naval architects, the marine engineers and the classification societies are all working on the same lines.

The Port of Rotterdam, which is not exactly a backwater, has announced that a 95% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 is needed to comply with the Paris Accords, and has set out realistic plans to get there.

I am sure the owners, the designers, the engineers, the class societies and the ports are all far too courteous to say anything about the oiling and greasing and bullying and whining that has been done in their names by the shipping industry lobbyists and spokespeople, out of sight and out of earshot of the media, to get this can kicked, not just down the road, but out of sight, and quite possibly under the wheels of an oncoming juggernaut.

(Those who want to see what that juggernaut might look like may care to look up ‘Thermohaline circulation’” and ‘The younger Dryas’.)

We might notice that, although we cannot know what went on in the media-free zones that are IMO working groups and drafting groups, rumour has it that the nations most firmly stuck, like Brontosaurs, in the swamp, bellowing “Fatuous!” Unrealistic!” “Unnecessary!”  are nations which don’t have very many ships, or very many shipowners, and the people who know least about the subject are not the shipowners, but those who sometimes finance them.

We do not need to criticise the IMO. The organisation has made itself irrelevant, along with the lobbyists who haunt its corridors, for the time being. The IMO will be along presently, revisiting the subject, trying to catch up, as the real world of ships and ports moves on.

We must hope that the IMO does not lose member states to rising sea levels in the meantime.





Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.


  1. Some emissions are way worse than others. Some believe CO2 emissions are bad. I think they don’t matter as high levels of CO2 are generally beneficial to living organisms. Cosmic rays may have a bigger effect on climate than CO2. The IMO should concern itself with the welfare of the crews whose work pays their sky high expenses.

    1. Evan,

      I think we may differ on carbon dioxide, because the living organisms that would be in a position to use it – green leaved plants – are not getting much of a chance to do so. There’s a rather useful summary of the scale of illegal logging by Chatham House on their website.

      If I look at the engineering, the chemistry and the physics of any of the low or zero carbon ideas for ship propulsion, not one of them, except perhaps the pure sailing ship, is something that anyone would place in the hands of demotivated, badly paid, poorly educated people. Splash is running a poll on whether the ships of the future will need better educated crews and on this basis my answer is “yes”.

  2. I have commented on the irrelevance of CO2 emissions to the well being of the planet, in the comments following the article entitled Fatuous , Unrealistic and Unnecessary.

    When it comes evaluating the usefulness of key people in critical marine operations, I am wary of using the terms “educated” , as there is a species out there in operations, best described as the “Educated Idiot”, meaning people put in charge of critical operations who have no sense of important practical issues. BP’s Houston Drilling Department office, which made critical operational decisions about the Deepwater Horizon must had a few of this species.

    On the other hand, they say that the next generation of seagoing marine assets may even have no crew at all. I wonder who is qualified to define the range of skills needed to run the entire job from the office?

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