With around 90% of global trade carried by ships, decarbonisation of the world’s fleet would be an environmental game-changer. But given the number of countries involved, and their respective vested interests, reaching any sort of agreement has been fraught with difficulty.
On 7 July 2023 the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 80) agreed to a revised GHG reduction strategy that will see the implementation of a series of amendments to the IMO’s International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from ships (MARPOL).
The headline coming out of the MEPC 80 meeting is that member states have agreed to a common ambition of achieving net-zero GHG emissions from international shipping by as close to 2050 as possible, with ‘indicative check-points’ in 2030 and 2040.
Industry feedback has been predominantly positive with shipowners’ association BIMCO calling it ’ground-breaking‘. However, many campaigners feel that the targets set by MEPC 80 are ’too low and too slow‘, ’toothless‘ and ’fatally flawed‘. Similarly, Island states such as the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu not only rely on shipping to strengthen their local economies, but also experience a disproportionate risk associated with climate change, and as such strongly advocate for far more ambitious targets and concrete action in the short-term.
The development and safe mass adoption of technologies (both ashore and at sea) to support a net zero bunker supply industry could well be decades away. At least for now, the cost gap between existing and zero-GHG fuels remains excessively high. Jose Matheickal, IMO Chief of Partnerships and Projects, acknowledges that whilst the industry is moving in the right direction, it is a long path. He went on to state that ’what is most important is that we are now on a common path‘.
The industry has a moral obligation to positively influence the long-term future for the benefit of subsequent generations and because of this the IMO indeed has a core responsibility to responsibly plan and ensure that decisions made today will benefit not just this generation or the next, but the generations many times removed. The fact that the MEPC 80 strategy achieved unanimous support from member states is noteworthy and should offer a degree of hope that the ambitions will in fact be achieved. But, it is important to recognise the amount of time which is required for ship-owners to plan, design and procure new tonnage. Replacement of an entire fleet will take years and it is not realistic to expect shipowners to renew their fleets in the expectation of emerging technology, and/or which will be reliant on shoreside infrastructure which does not yet exist.
However, we must ask ourselves, have we become overly focused on the development of long-term regulatory instruments and environmental strategies and if so, is this coming at the cost of effective implementation of short-term actionable initiatives. The question then becomes, what short-term actionable measures could be taken today to support the MEPC’s ambitions for tomorrow, bringing back CII, EEXI and SEEMP into sharp focus.
Many suggest we should be focusing on the ‘time value of maritime decarbonization’ and delivering viable short-term measures. One example would be the rapid and widespread adoption across the world’s merchant fleet of high-performance energy efficiency technologies such as wind propulsion, hull air lubrication and carbon capture technologies. These are not stop-gap solutions but enablers to zero carbon fuels given the inherent energy density challenges.
Further, the industry should expedite the output from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) impact assessment which would allow developing countries to participate equitably in the global trading system ’fund and reward‘ proposal that will permit the adoption of a levy per tonne of GHG emitted. Creating this fund would support rapid transition but its implementation is unlikely to be adopted simultaneously by all relevant countries.
These short-term measures provide tangible, market-ready opportunities to assist with the abatement of the near 1 billion metric tonnes of CO2 emitted by shipping annually.
In conclusion, the IMO’s latest GHG reduction strategy and targets are a major step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done if we are to meet ambitious climate goals. We must remain focused and committed to finding solutions that balance both environmental protection and sustained economic growth. Short-term solutions are available to quickly reduce carbon emissions from shipping. From the rapid adoption of high-performance energy efficiency technologies and expediting of UNCTAD’s impact assessments, there are multiple avenues for our industry to take meaningful strides ahead in step with other global actors. Together across the industry, we can make a difference by taking bold steps today – instead of tomorrow.