IMO agrees to nonbinding target to achieve net zero “around 2050”

PHOTO: UNCTAD

International Maritime Organization (IMO) member states have reached a tentative deal on the thorny question of bringing shipping into line with the Paris Agreement. The newly-agreed MEPC climate roadmap calls for reaching net-zero emissions “by or around, i.e. close to, 2050.”

IMO and the shipping industry negotiated an exception from the landmark 2016 climate agreement, on condition that emissions would be regulated by IMO. Along with aviation, shipping is one of only two sectors in the world not subject to national-level Paris pledges. The nature of the IMO’s climate regulation has been a matter of constant debate over the intervening nine years.

The deal announced Thursday begins to resolve that question, and it includes elements of proposals from NGOs, developing nations and climate action opponents – like China, which has pushed for greater flexibility on the target date and less ambitious emissions policies.

The specific targets in the agreement include a 20 percent cut in emissions by 2030 and a much deeper 70 percent cut by 2040 (relative to 2008 levels). The first goalpost would be broadly achievable with proven interventions like slow steaming, just-in-time arrival, technical efficiency upgrades, and add-ons like rotor sails. The 2040 target would require deeper changes to shipping’s fuel supply.

The agreement falls short of the objectives of clean-shipping NGOs, like the Clean Shipping Coalition, Transport & Environment and the Ocean Conservancy, but it is also far more advanced than the previous IMO “ambition” of a 50 percent cut by 2050.

Still, the targets are nonbinding, like the previously-agreed version, and the text calls for compliance only when “national circumstances allow.” Some environmental advocates panned the agreement as a failure and called for national- and regional-level action to bypass IMO.

“The IMO had the opportunity to set an unambiguous and clear course towards the 1.5ºC temperature goal, but all it came up with is a wishy-washy compromise. Fortunately, states like the US, UK and the EU don’t have to wait for China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia to act,” said Faig Abbasov, the shipping programme director at T&E.

Some of the nation-state advocates for emissions cuts were less disappointed. The targets would reportedly have been even lower if MEPC delegates had not given extra weight to the interests of small Pacific island nations, which are already feeling the impact of sea level rise.

“This important step would not have been possible without unwavering Pacific leadership, as well as profound solidarity from countries all over the world,” said Marshall Islands negotiator Albon Ishoda, a longtime proponent of more stringent emissions policies.

Beyond the symbolic emissions targets, MEPC will also advance discussion of one of decarbonisation advocates’ top policy priorities – a carbon levy. Over strong opposition from China, the IMO will move forward consideration of carbon pricing as an “economic measure” for debate at upcoming MEPC meetings.

“Ultimately, it’s the measures the organisation takes to implement the strategy, such as GHG intensity standards for ships and fuels, as well as economic measures, that will determine how much international shipping contributes to future warming. Strong measures can steer the sector closer to 1.5°C alignment, but weak measures that fail to bend shipping’s emissions curve could mean exhausting the well below 2°C carbon budget by the late 2030s,” said Dr. Bryan Comer, Marine Programme Lead, International Council on Clean Transportation.

“Nations failed this week to put the global shipping industry on a credible 1.5oC decarbonisation pathway. While the inclusion of 2030 and 2040 emissions reduction targets for shipping is not insignificant — and we commend the Republic of Marshall Islands and Vanuatu for their tireless diplomacy to hold them — this Strategy will see the shipping industry exhaust its 1.5oC carbon budget by 2032. Fortunately, major maritime nations, ports, and companies can still act to fully decarbonise ocean shipping by 2040 – and that’s what we’ll be pushing them to do,” said Madeline Rose, Deputy Executive Director and Senior Climate Campaign Director, Pacific Environment.

“After more than a decade of deliberations without progress, the IMO has once again deferred action to reduce the emissions of black carbon in the Arctic to a future meeting. To a planet which is suffering from an ever worsening climate crisis, actions to protect the Arctic, and to prevent sea ice melt are low hanging fruit that could help our world right now, eliminating black carbon emissions in the Arctic is that action. We applaud Canada for proposing an Emission Control Area for Canadian Arctic waters, and urge the IMO and its member states to support this proposal, but establishing an ECA will take too long, and we must take action to reduce black carbon in the Arctic now!” said Jim Gamble, Senior Director, Arctic Programme.

“There is no excuse for this wish and a prayer agreement. They knew what the science required, and that a 50 percent cut in emissions by 2030 was both possible and affordable. Instead the level of ambition agreed is far short of what is needed to be sure of keeping global heating below 1.5C, and the language seemingly contrived to be vague and non-committal. The most vulnerable put up an admirable fight for high ambition and significantly improved the agreement but we are still a long way from the IMO treating the climate crisis with the urgency that it deserves and that the public demands,” said John Maggs, President Clean Shipping Coalition

“Aside from FIFA, it’s hard to think of an international organisation more useless than the IMO. This week’s climate talks were reminiscent of rearranging the deckchairs on a sinking ship. The IMO had the opportunity to set an unambiguous and clear course towards the 1.5ºC temperature goal, but all it came up with is a wishy-washy compromise. Fortunately, states like the US, UK and the EU don’t have to wait for China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia to act. Ambitious national policies and green shipping lanes can have a global impact. It’s time to think globally, act locally,” said Faïg Abbasov, Shipping programme director, Transport & Environment.

“There is a real sinking feeling in the IMO. This agreement does not address the climate crisis or meet 1.5 limits. In typical IMO fashion there was delay tactics in working groups while the real inaction happened behind closed doors where many were excluded until the final hour and in front of a near ultimatum. The Pacific’s brought it back from the brink. But let’s be clear that this was not transparent, just or equitable and it is reflected in the result reached. What’s especially egregious is that we have the know-how to tackle this crisis. We also know that action will be far cheaper than inaction! The solutions exist yet once again IMO is failing to act with the urgency that dealing with the climate crisis requires. Another example to add to our recently published shipping SOS report which catalogues 50 years of failure to address the environmental impact of shipping. We will need others to step up and man the lifeboats if we are to shift and rescue a 1.5 aligned course,” said Lucy Gilliam, Senior Shipping Policy Officer, Seas At Risk.

“By our estimates, international shipping will exceed its 1.5°C carbon budget by approximately 2032 under this agreement. Shipping can stay within a budget aligned with well below 2°C if it can manage to hit the strategy’s 2030 and 2040 emissions reduction targets and achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. Ultimately, it’s the measures the organization takes to implement the strategy, such as GHG intensity standards for ships and fuels, as well as economic measures, that will determine how much international shipping contributes to future warming. Strong measures can steer the sector closer to 1.5°C alignment, but weak measures that fail to bend shipping’s emissions curve could mean exhausting the well below 2°C carbon budget by the late 2030s,” said Dr Bryan Comer, Marine Programme Lead, International Council on Clean Transportation.

“The climate emergency demands an international response, but the IMO’s struggle to set a GHG Strategy this week that adequately responds to the climate emergency raises questions of whether the organisation ultimately is up for the task. While the new GHG strategy nearly doubles the long-term ambition over the initial 2018 strategy, the checkpoints for 2030 and 2040 that were finally agreed to fall short of what is needed to ensure a warming limit of 1.5C. Thankfully, the Marshall Islands, Vanuatu and other small island states were able to secure stronger checkpoints, but the IMO must do better and others will need to step in. We now more than ever need immediate reductions and forceful national and regional policies and investments to keep us on a 1.5C route,” said Delaine McCullough, Shipping Emissions Campaign Manager.

“While we applaud the long term commitment to decarbonisation, it is clear that concessions to the fossil fuel lobby are slowing down the IMO process. The climate crisis waits for no one and the IMO must immediately adopt measures mandating near-term GHG reductions,” said Whit Sheard, Senior Director, Shipping Emissions.

“The IMO has agreed to strive for 10% of shipping’s energy sources to be zero emission by 2030, while at the same time stating that 2027 will be the earliest that any measures to achieve this will be put in place. That’s why it’s even more urgent now that the EU, the UK and other countries put in place decisive national or regional policy to ensure that truly sustainable alternative fuels are available for the shipping industry. The SASHA Coalition will continue to work with its members to ensure that even with this disappointing IMO outcome, the sector will still have access to the fuels it needs to decarbonise,” said Aoife O’Leary, Director, Skies and Seas Hydrogen-fuels Accelerator (SASHA) Coalition.

“This week had everything to be a historical moment. The last chance for the IMO to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal of 1.5°C, vital to secure a just and equitable transition for the world’s most vulnerable nations, and protect our global biodiversity, such as the world’s coral reefs which will cease to exist in a world above 1.5°C. This agreement does not get us to 1.5°C. Nonetheless, we are grateful for the immensely hard work of the Pacific Island nations and other ambitious Member States to secure the best possible outcome in what were extremely intense rounds of negotiations. Every fraction of a degree is of crucial importance, and we need to continue to work to decarbonise international shipping in a just and equitable manner as soon as possible,” said Ana Laranjeira, Shipping Manager, Opportunity Green.

“The way the International Maritime Organisation has watered down its climate ambition will sink the shipping sector’s chances of meeting its Paris Agreement commitments. Due to this historic failure, we need ambitious countries and blocs to chart their own course and set carbon levies at national and regional level of at least US$100 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Daniele Rao, Expert on Decarbonisation of Shipping and Aviation.

“It is a step forward to set this 2050 goal, but the IMO has failed to provide a realistic path forward to reduce emissions across the sector in a way that aligns with the Paris Agreement.

A carbon price is going forward to the Impact Assessment phase, but we still need a much clearer definition of a minimum us$100 per tonne levy, to generate money to compensate the poorest states and close the price gap to green ship fuels. This should be added back in during the measures discussion,” said Kare Press-Kristensen, senior advisor on cleaner shipping, Denmark.

“Today’s deal is a significant but still inadequate step towards emissions free shipping. It is now clear that decarbonisation is coming to shipping, albeit too late. It is also clear that a broad majority of countries led by the Pacific island states are ready for urgent climate action. So are progressive shipowners. In this light, it is a real disappointment that the IMO could not agree to phase out fossil fuels by 2050. It is now up to industry, progressive member states and regions such as the EU to push beyond what the IMO could agree to, and bring shipping in line with the 1,5 degrees target,” Rasmus Bjerring Larsen, shipping policy office. “During MEPC 80, IMO member states had the chance to show global leadership by curbing the shipping sector’s impact on the climate and the Arctic by slashing greenhouse gas emissions – but have instead opted for a bland, and weaker version of their earlier ambitions”, said Clean Arctic Alliance Lead Advisor Dr Sian Prior. “National governments and regions must now put in place measures to enforce a lowering of shipping emissions if we are to stay within the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement.”

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