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We can achieve a bold, ambitious climate strategy, says IMO secretary-general

A consensus among previously divided member states is within reach and the IMO can achieve a net zero greenhouse gas-reduction strategy, insists IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim

The pivotal MEPC80 meeting at the IMO will, in effect, set the tone and timing of the regulatory agenda for decades to come. Lim is not daunted by the weight of history on his shoulders; he says he has faith in the member states to deliver the right outcome



THE shipping industry is about to get the regulatory certainty it needs to rapidly invest in a zero-carbon future, according to the International Maritime Organization secretary-general Kitack Lim.

Once IMO member states agree an increase in the UN agency’s strategic ambitions to hit a net zero target by 2050 at the pivotal Marine Environment Protection Committee meeting in July, technical and economic regulations will follow within two to three years, insists Lim.

The secretary-general is also increasingly confident that progress inside the IMO will result in a convergence of regional European Union policies with global standards.

“I’m optimistic,” said Lim, talking to Lloyd’s List just a few weeks before the MEPC80 meeting — beginning on July 3 at the IMO headquarters in London — is set to open final discussions to revise the organisation’s strategy for reducing carbon emissions.

“There are still differences in the positions held by individual states, but there has been a remarkable effort on the part of the member states and the gap has been narrowing steadily over the past two years,” he explained.

As it stands, the IMO’s strategy is to cut shipping industry emissions by 50% by 2050 from a 2008 baseline — but the anticipated revision of the strategy due to be agreed at MEPC80 will see that figure effectively doubled towards net zero.

It should also agree, in principle, the outline of the mid-term technical and economic measures that will be required to follow from that aspirational agreement.

The decisions are at once highly technical and hugely political. The differences in positions to which Lim refers are effectively national negotiating strategies on climate financing — and, while a consensus of states prepared to up the IMO’s ambition has been building, the decisions that will stem from MEPC80 still hang in the balance.

“Every country inside the IMO is committed to achieving decarbonisation,” said Lim, who has personally overseen many of the drawn-out discussions within the agency to get close to a point of consensus.

When the IMO agreed the initial greenhouse gas strategy in 2018, Lim concedes that member states were still deeply divided over the process.

Over the intervening five years, several studies, working groups and political breakthroughs in supranational bodies, including the UN COP meetings, have seen the various political barriers removed; states are now the most closely aligned they have ever been.

“We can get consensus, I’m positive we can. There are still differences in the member states’ positions, but the negotiations are progressing, and the differences can be overcome. I am very optimistic,” said Lim.

The outcome of MEPC80 is going to be hugely significant in terms of the IMO’s continued credibility as a global regulator and as a signal to the market that will determine investment timelines.

By agreeing and implementing ambitious science-based decarbonisation targets in its revised GHG strategy, the IMO could accelerate the development of low- and zero-emission fuels and attract the investment needed to overhaul the infrastructure of the global shipping industry and retrofit a fleet of ships.

Equally, a less-ambitious set of targets with no clarity on the technical and economic measures to follow would fail to catalyse demand.

This means the industry would lose another five years waiting for the next iteration of a global strategy that will have been overtaken by regional measures. It would make the transition more expensive, fragmented and tilted in favour of developed countries.

Lim is adamant that the strategy will not only set a headline target; it will also add much-needed clarity to what happens next.

“It is crucial that MEPC80 set the increased level of ambition high. Once we have agreed that, the format of the technical measures and policies like fuel standards and the economic measures will follow quickly.

“I think if we get the right agreement at MEPC80, it will take two to three years to develop the specific measures and policies that will follow from that,” said Lim.

Regarding the prospect of regional measures overtaking the IMO’s process, Lim is also relentlessly optimistic that a global regulation is not just possible; it’s essential.

“I don’t have any doubt that once the IMO develops a solution, that will be the global solution,” he said.

After years of fractious debate between the EU and the IMO, both sides have recently been talking up the prospect of a convergence of approaches.

Both Lim and the European Commission’s head of transport directorate, Fotini Ioannidou, have recently adopted a newly optimistic tone in statements on the subject following bilateral meetings.

The commission has confirmed that if sufficient progress is made at MEPC80, the review mechanism to consider an alignment of EU measures with IMO standards will remain open.

Lim, meanwhile, is “certain that the IMO will be able to adopt measures that will allow a global solution”.

The secretary-general traditionally delivers a speech at the outset of important meetings like MEPC, where he invariably invokes the ambition required from governments and urges delegates “to be bold” in their negotiations.

This year, however, he says he will not be giving them the usual pep talk.

“I know already that the member states are committed, bold and ambitious in their thinking,” he said.

“I will be telling them that I have every confidence in them and trust them to make the right decisions. They know what we need to do.”

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