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The IMO must show leadership on carbon emissions or face irrelevance

Another fudged consensus from MEPC80 is just not good enough. The unequivocal minimum yardstick must be net zero by 2050, with binding reductions by specified dates providing the necessary waymarkers

If China gets its way, fragmented regionalism will replace the United Nations specialist agency as the rule maker. That is not good for world trade and not good for shipping, either

PROTESTORS organising a self-styled “early morning rave” outside the headquarters of the International Maritime Organization next Monday haven’t specified which genre of electronic dance music will be gracing the decks.

We suspect most attendees at the opening session of the Marine Environment Protect Committee that morning would not know the difference between hardcore techno and progressive trance anyway.

That doesn’t matter. What does matter is their ability to discern the difference between an unambiguous and credible commitment to net zero carbon emissions from shipping by 2050 and all other options.

MEPC80 is tasked with replacing the IMO’s existing greenhouse gas reduction strategy, adopted in 2018. The latter entails halving output by 2050, as measured against a 2008 baseline, caveated with an allowance for emissions to keep rising for years to come.

That was hailed as a minor diplomatic miracle at the time. From any more objective standpoint, it was screamingly unambitious, speaking to a degree of detachment from public opinion that can only find a home in the most entrenched of bureaucracies.

Shipping emissions of CO2 have subsequently risen to 940m tonnes per annum, up 140m tonnes since the IMO resolved to bring them down. If our industry were a country, it would rank somewhere between Japan and Germany, two of the planet’s powerhouse industrial economies.

As an increasing number of shipping voices recognise, the politics has moved on, especially now the likelihood that limiting global warming to 1.5°C is all but a forlorn hope.

When even the biggest mining houses and oil majors pledge net zero by 2050, our industry will not get away with “but, but, hard to abate” special pleading.

This week, senior figures from the national shipowner associations of the Bahamas, Belgium, Denmark, Liberia, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore and the UK signed an open letter that gets with the programme.

It is no exaggeration to contend that the continued relevance and legitimacy of the IMO as a global regulatory body rests on the results of the delegates’ deliberations.

The unequivocal minimum yardstick is net zero by 2050, combined with binding reductions by specified dates providing the necessary waymarkers.

The Science Based Targets initiative suggests shipping should look to cut carbon emissions by 37% in 2030 and 96% in 2040 to stay on a Paris trajectory, and those figures have been endorsed in US, Canadian and UK submissions to the IMO.

Sadly, China — which, in these days of multipolarity, enjoys growing diplomatic clout — is leading concerted efforts to water down these imperatives.

Beijing wants concrete references to 2050 replaced with the wiggle room circumlocution “mid century” and mere “intermediate checkpoints” instead of hard and fast 2030 and 2040 requirements.

But should China’s attitude prevail, there is a real risk that global regulatory environment will fragment, with regional stipulations coming into force in both the European Union and US, where the process is already well under way.

A descent into incompatible regionalisms would constitute an unnecessary fetter to trade that would redound to no-one’s advantage, especially not that of the world’s largest exporter. Delegates with shipping’s interests at heart should not vote for this.

Also needed is clear language on technical and economic measures, including a global fuel standard and complementary market-based economic measures, most likely in the form of a fuel levy.

The majority of member states see that as the best bet. But China and some others are firmly against the idea and are pushing for what is effectively a mini emissions trading system for vessels instead. The complications of rolling out such a scheme would be immense.

In any case, the EU is already set to include shipping in its overall Emissions Trading System from 2024, with a three-year phase-in period that will require ETS allowance purchases for 40% of emissions from 2024 and 100% from 2026.

Finally, the standard of all relevant calculations should be full lifecycle emissions, known in the jargon as well-to-wake. Currently, IMO regulations are on a tank-to-wake basis, meaning that only the emissions emanating from direct fuel combustion on board a vessel are incorporated in the tally.

This limited accounting mechanism does not consider the climate impacts of the entire energy supply chain. It also disincentivises investments in green energy, and instead encourages continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Shifting responsibility for emissions from ships’ exhausts to the energy supply chain is a book-keeping trick and should not be morally countenanced, whatever the momentary convenience.

The end results of the week ahead’s talking shop are unlikely to deliver this wish list. A more probable outcome will be a settlement couched in terms of what is known as “aspirational wording”.

That euphemism does violence to the plain English meaning of the word aspiration, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “steadfast desire or longing for something above one”. It is not, in other words, a mere synonym for “lowest common denominator”.

The experts and diplomats undertaking negotiations at London’s sole United Nations agency next week may look askance at the climate-concerned teens and MDMA-raddled fifty-something veterans of the Second Summer of Love dancing on the pavements at Albert Embankment.

We can only hope there are no attempts to disrupt the proceedings by way of direct action, which would be both futile and counterproductive.

But the demands of the demonstrators are not wrong in themselves. Now is the time for shipping to embrace net zero.

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