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Low-carbon shipping: Will 2018 be the turning point?

Dominik Englert's picture
Photo: Peter Hessels/Flickr
As highlighted in a previous blog post, international maritime transport has not kept pace with other transport modes in the fight against climate change.

While inland transport was included in the 2015 Paris Agreement and international air transport followed suit in 2016, progress in the international shipping sector, which carries 80% of the world’s trade volume, has been more modest. Back in 2011, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) did adopt a set of operational and technical measures to increase the energy efficiency of vessels. Realistically though, it may take about 25-30 years to renew the world’s entire fleet and make all new vessels fully compliant with IMO’s technical requirements.

In any case, focusing only on technical and operational efficiency simply won’t be enough. The demand for maritime transport is growing so quickly that, even when taking all these energy efficiency regulations into account, CE Delft projects that emissions from international shipping could still increase by 20-120% by 2050, while IMO estimates range between 50-250% for different scenarios. This clearly calls for a bolder agenda that includes credible market-based solutions, too.

Float the boat again: New momentum for climate discussions in the sector

Not long ago, negotiations had stalled and this kind of ambition seemed almost unattainable. In 2015, however, the late Tony de Brum, a tireless climate advocate who served as Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, revived the discussions on GHG emissions reductions in international shipping. The Marshall Islands, a small island developing state that is particularly vulnerable to climate change, is home to the world’s second largest ship registry.

Over the past few months, the conversation has gained new additional momentum. Specifically, several tangible developments are giving us reason to believe that real change may finally be on the horizon:
  • During the COP23 climate conference in Bonn, multiple sessions, including two events co-hosted by the Fijian COP Presidency, emphasized the critical importance of the maritime sector in combating climate change. Political leaders agreed to work on both: short-term measures to tackle emissions quickly and a long-term sector-wide decarbonization target. Leaders from the private sector acknowledged the urgent need to fundamentally change the way ships are driven forward today.

  • At the One Planet Summit in Paris, France released the Tony de Brum Declaration, whereby signatory states “confirm that international shipping, like all other sectors of human activity, must take urgent action” to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement, and “recall the leading role of the International Maritime Organization in defining this action.” To date, the declaration has been signed by 38 countries and remains open for additional signatories.

  • In parallel, the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition (CPLC) and Sustainable Mobility for All (SuM4All), two initiatives with strong involvement of the World Bank, are actively working together to complement the sector’s decarbonization efforts. These partnerships provide a forum for open dialogue where ideas can be explored and discussed to inform the decision-making process under the IMO, especially with regard to market-based mechanisms.

Heading for new shores: Together toward low-carbon shipping

The next milestone is without a doubt the 72nd session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), which will meet in London in April 2018. The stakes are high: It is on that occasion that the IMO is expected to deliver its Initial GHG Reduction Strategy. The center piece of this strategy will be the agreed level of ambition of all IMO Member States. This requires the committee to define for the first time a sector-wide emissions reduction target (how much should be reduced?), a timeline (by when?), and a baseline (what year should be used as a reference to measure the evolution of emissions?).

The transition to low-carbon maritime transport will not happen overnight, of course. Yet, the kind of energy and developments we’ve seen in recent months have shown that low-carbon shipping might not be such a distant dream after all. Following years of doldrums or moderate breeze, we are glad to see that the climate agenda is about to take off under full sail. In fact, as China has just been ringing in the Year of the Dog, we can’t help but wonder: For all of us working in climate change, could 2018 eventually be remembered as the Year of Shipping?
 

Learn more about international shipping and climate change:
Three reasons why maritime transport must act on climate change (December 2017)
 

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