Reducing Vessel Pollution

Exciting progress made at the International Maritime Organization

I’m back in Alaska after a journey to London for a meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations that regulates shipping. Now that the jetlag has finally worn off, I’m ready to share all that happened—both the newsworthy decisions and some of the other, lesser-known successes.

Reduction in Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The most notable decision at MEPC pertains to greenhouse gas emissions. While the shipping sector accounts for 3% of global GHG emissions, it was not included in the 2015 Paris agreement to mitigate GHG emissions. After years of foundational work and two weeks of intense negotiations, the IMO adopted historic measures requiring the shipping sector to reduce its emissions by “at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008.” While this standard falls short of the more ambitious 70-100% reductions proposed by the European Union, various small island nations and others, it is nonetheless an enormous step forward. And, the term “at least” leaves the door open to continue to press for the more aggressive 70-100% reductions needed to align with Paris Agreement goals.

Progress on Banning Heavy Fuel Oil
The MEPC also agreed on plans to develop a ban on heavy fuel oil (HFO) use and carriage for use in Arctic waters. The plan will be based on an assessment of the impacts such a ban may have. While the timeline for the HFO ban has not yet been determined, this is a major step forward. Any type of oil spill is likely to have negative impacts, but an HFO spill would likely be especially damaging. HFO emulsifies in water, is extremely viscous, and breaks down very slowly in marine environments, particularly in colder regions like the Arctic. For these reasons, HFO use and carriage for use is already banned in Antarctica. And now, the IMO has signaled that it is getting serious about a ban on HFO use and carriage for use in the Arctic.

Preventing Marine Plastic Pollution
IMO also committed to developing an action plan to prevent and significantly reduce marine plastic pollution from the shipping sector. The commitment benefited from widespread member-state support to address this growing problem. Of particular concern is discarded or lost fishing gear, lost containers, mismanagement of marine garbage from ships and microplastics. Plastic pollution is a serious problem, and I’m encouraged that the IMO has committed to developing measures to address marine plastic and microplastics from sea-based sources.

Decreasing Noise Pollution
The MEPC meeting also featured presentations and discussions related to decreasing the amount of underwater noise generated by vessels. In most ocean areas, low-frequency noise from propellers and engines of commercial vessels is the major source of human-caused noise. Many marine species, particularly marine mammals, are adversely impacted by vessel traffic-related ship strikes and noise. Since many marine mammals use sound for communication and echolocation, noise from ships can disrupt feeding, breeding, resting and other behaviors; mask important sounds, like those that enable predator avoidance; and much more. I look forward to further work to address these impacts!

Advancement of many other issues
The IMO meeting addressed other important topics, too, including approval of a ban on the carriage of higher-sulphur fuels, additional work on the implementation of the international ballast water convention, and discussions of graywater discharges by vessels. This was a jam-packed agenda with a host of positive outcomes!

The next MEPC meeting will be held in London in October, where the Committee will continue to make progress on all the initiatives described above. In the meantime, we’ll keep you updated on our work toward keeping Arctic waters free of HFO and mitigating the impacts of litter, emissions, and noise on the Arctic environment.

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