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World Maritime Day ambitions must match the rhetoric

Celebrating Marpol at 50 is all well and good. But once you reach that birthday, you are officially middle-aged, and probably asking yourself whether you have met your life goals. Or not

For the IMO’s proceedings to represent anything more than a drinks reception accompanied by a token press release, shipping’s contribution to the fight for a better environment needs to be stepped up

JUST in case it’s not in your festive calendar, September 2 marked World Coconut Day, held annually since 2009 under the auspices of the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community. This year the theme was Coconuts: Transforming Lives.

The event trumpets the benefits of growing and eating the outsized seed of the tropical palm tree, including its contributions to the economy and agriculture of regions where coconuts grow.

Mild levity aside, we’re not being snotty here. There are some 16m coconut farmers, making the industry responsible for many more livelihoods than shipping, and it is as entitled to celebrate its endeavours as any other.

Our point is rather that those who proclaim “International Days of This, That and The Other” do well to step back from a purely internal frame of reference and ask themselves whether these occasions serve the stated purpose of raising awareness.

In the case of today’s International Maritime Organization-backed World Maritime Day, the frank answer is no. It typically achieves far less reach than an ephemeral scratch-your-eyes-out celebrity social media spat.

Those who have even heard of it all probably assume it’s something of an also-ran adjunct to last week’s “International Talk Like a Pirate Day”.

All of this is unsurprising, and perhaps even unavoidable. The IMO is one of the smallest United Nations agencies.

It probably doesn’t have the budget to undertake any real promotion of occasion, although as what must be among the largest entities in Britain exempt from any requirement to publish financial statements, who can say for certain?

Nevertheless, since WMD’s inauguration in 1978, the last Thursday of September has seen maritime publications carry obligatory dutiful editorials noting shipping’s unsung role in helping global trade and lamenting its almost horizontal low profile.

Good form also necessitates commending the efforts of seafarers, who would presumably prefer greater efforts to ensure an end to abandonment to a verbal pat on the back.

Finally, such pieces usually conclude with a nod to the official theme, which this time round is ‘Marpol at 50 — Our commitment goes on’.

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships was indeed adopted half a century ago, in response to the Torrey Canyon (IMO: 5365352) oil spill of 1967.

But it took a further decade to enter into force, making it only 40 in reality. Moreover, it has been a work in progress ever since, with ongoing updates including the Annex VI provisions on air pollution, which came into force as recently as 2005.

Marpol now has 160 state signatories, accounting for 99% of the global fleet by tonnage. Its stated aim is to preserve the marine environment through the complete elimination of pollution from oil and other harmful substances and the minimisation of accidental discharges.

But once you get to 50, you are officially middle-aged, and it is customary to reflect on your progress and how close you are to fulfilling your life goals. Or not.

That the world’s seas remain filthy, and not least beset by vast islands of plastic debris, is beyond dispute. Prosecutions for magic pipe cases — sometimes perpetrated by reputable companies that should know better — are regrettably not uncommon.

The only real counterargument is that without Marpol, things would be much worse. But the convention is not in any position to rest on its laurels.

Moreover, Marpol is the high-water mark for the IMO’s green credentials. Opinion is more divided on MEPC80, which Lloyd’s List described as “a credible, if unfinished, pathway to decarbonising shipping.”

But the loose and non-binding wording fall some way short of what is needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting climate change to 1.5%, and offers scant comfort to those countries who stand to be flooded out of existence if the goal is not met.

It is easy to criticise the IMO. As the rules-based international order begins to fragment — look no further than the travails of the World Trade Organisation for proof of that — the need for a worldwide multilateral maritime regulator has arguably never been greater.

But WMD will soon be over and humanity will be gearing up for International Rabbit Day on Saturday and dusting off the requisite pink wardrobe items for next month’s rapidly approaching Mean Girls Day.

For the IMO’s proceedings to represent anything more than a drinks reception accompanied by a press release, shipping’s contribution to the fight for a better environment needs to be stepped up.

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