IMO Fails Duty to Protect Climate and the Arctic

Another missed opportunity from the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 76)

Another nine months, another Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) at the International Maritime Organization (IMO). As you may remember, we weren’t overjoyed at the results last session, which settled on a profoundly underwhelming short term measure to address the sector’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in addition to a diluted “ban” on heavy fuel oil (HFO) use in the Arctic that will only take effect in 2029. While there were a few bright spots at the end of the week, the IMO failed in its duty to protect the Arctic and the climate.

Here is a quick recap on why these issues are so important: Shipping accounts for approximately 3% of global GHG emissions, equivalent to every coal-fired power plant in the United States. While most of these emissions take the form of CO2, the second-largest share of GHG emissions from shipping is black carbon. Black carbon is a short-lived climate pollutant that has a drastically higher potential impact on short-term warming, especially in northern areas like the Arctic. This is especially troubling as some shippers increasingly look to the region as a potential shortcut with the melting of Arctic sea ice. This places Indigenous communities and Arctic wildlife at the risk of an HFO spill, in addition to all the climate impacts the sector brings with it. A practical way to address both of these issues would have been a rapid ban on the use of HFO in the Arctic.

Instead, at last week’s MEPC meeting the IMO formally approved an unchanged and loophole-ridden ban on the use of HFO in the Arctic that will leave the Indigenous communities and wildlife facing the risk of an HFO spill for another decade. Despite the outcry from Arctic countries and representatives from the Indigenous communities, any discussion of black carbon was punted to the next session. This is all the more galling, considering that black carbon has been under discussion at the IMO for more than a decade now. The issue of scrubbers, potentially a massive future source of marine pollution in sensitive areas, also got punted to the next session for a second time owing to time constraints.

No less galling than the inaction on HFO and scrubbers were the decisions on short-term GHG emissions—though a shift in the winds may be coming at last. Taking up the IMO’s short-term measure from the previous MEPC meeting, one lingering point of discussion was the annual amount ships would have to improve their energy efficiency. On the average ship, there are many ways to improve this. The easiest is to slow the vessel down, reducing both fuel consumption and carbon emissions. Plenty of other tweaks are on offer, including the installation of wind shipping technology that can cut emissions by 20% or more. An ambitious annual target, like 7%, could put us on track to meet the Paris Agreement goals, and keep us in line with a 1.5°C warming scenario. Setting a target like 4-5% could get us to zero by 2050, well in line with Climate Envoy John Kerry’s commitment in April. Countries including the Marshall Islands and the United States supported these targets and took the lead in urging others to adopt more realistic climate measures for the sector.

Yet after a great deal of discussion, the IMO narrowly split in favor of … 1.5% as an annual target until 2026, roughly on par with the business as usual rate of improvement. Instead of targeting GHG emissions today, countries mostly rallied to adopt a work plan to discuss mid-term measures, which would likely target 2030 onwards. While this could mean carbon levies or something more direct by 2025, this still leaves us facing a sector with a growing emissions bill each year and less time to pay it if we are to avoid truly catastrophic climate change.

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In the one true bright spot for the meeting, the committee accepted a proposal from Australia, Canada and the United States to review the 2014 Guidelines for the reduction of underwater noise from commercial shipping to address adverse impacts on marine life. While the 2014 Guidelines provide the foundation to mitigate noise impacts from ships on the marine ecosystem, due to their voluntary nature, few ships adhere to them. This revision of the guidelines can enable noise reduction measures to be more effective in the future.

We continue to have our work cut out for us at the IMO. Fortunately, nothing prevents countries from taking action to cut carbon pollution or reduce the risk of HFO on their own. Some solutions could be quickly enacted here in the United States or folded into a country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Many of the energy-saving solutions that shippers adopt can also help reduce underwater noise, another way of advancing international work at home. Others, like the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, should incorporate shipping into regional climate targets. Shipping companies and consumer companies can also continue to take the Arctic Corporate Shipping Pledge to avoid the polar environment altogether. Inside the IMO and here at home, Ocean Conservancy will continue to campaign with you to ensure a healthy climate and ocean now and into the future.

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