Lloyd's List is part of Maritime Intelligence

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Maritime Insights & Intelligence Limited, registered in England and Wales with company number 13831625 and address c/o Hackwood Secretaries Limited, One Silk Street, London EC2Y 8HQ, United Kingdom. Lloyd’s List Intelligence is a trading name of Maritime Insights & Intelligence Limited. Lloyd’s is the registered trademark of the Society Incorporated by the Lloyd’s Act 1871 by the name of Lloyd’s.

This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use. For high-quality copies or electronic reprints for distribution to colleagues or customers, please call UK support at +44 (0)20 3377 3996 / APAC support at +65 6508 2430

Printed By


The IMO is speaking softly on greenhouse gases. The time may come to use the big stick

MEPC81 will try to make fetch happen on the 2030 and 2040 intermediate checkpoints. Don’t hold your breath

Substantive regulatory measures should be the last resort. But last resorts are sometimes unavoidable

“SPEAK softly and carry a big stick; you will go far,” advised Theodore Roosevelt, US president at the turn of the last century. Originally intended as a foreign policy maxim, the words may be equally applicable to the International Maritime Organization’s climate change strategy.

The speech has surely been soft so far. Some formulations enshrined at the MEPC80 meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee last July were extensively caveated.

The most obvious example is the overarching goal itself, with the adoption of an “enhanced common ambition” to reach net zero “by or around, i.e. close to” 2050.

But second prize surely goes to the commitment to ensure “an uptake” of zero and near-zero GHG fuels by 2030, tentatively set at 5% and “striving for” 10%.

Shipping is one the world’s major industries. But even that target looks a long shot unless Maersk and other big players can make their weight felt.

Dual-fuel vessels, shipping’s main response to climate imperatives to date, are fine and dandy. But they will make little contribution to bringing down emissions if they go on burning conventional fuel oil.

The IMO also proclaimed two “indicative checkpoints”, with desired emissions cuts of 20%-30% by 2030 and 70%-80% by 2040 from 2008 levels.

There is by definition no comeback for not meeting an indicative target, which could tempt many shipowners to stick to business as usual for as long as they can.

Already there is a certain degree of scepticism abroad. A poll of Lloyd’s List seminar attendees last December found only a relatively slim majority — 56%, to be exact — were confident that shipping would hit net zero by mid-century.

More than three-quarters considered the 2030 objective a no-hoper and a majority felt the 2040 aspiration was unlikely to be reached.

It is a given that shipowners will ultimately no longer be able to purchase the crud that is left at the end of the refinery process under the polite euphemism of bunker fuel, as they have done for more than a century.

After that, much hinges on availability, which is essentially outside the IMO’s purview. Energy producers are for-profit enterprises and will dedicate refinery capacity to whatever outputs make them most money.

There is little indication that they will offer dedicated marine alt fuels in more than nugatory volume by the indicative checkpoint deadlines.

A contributory — but not determinant — factor will be the vagaries of politics, particularly the growing possibility of a second Trump presidency and a consequent reversal of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act.

The legislation’s title is anyway something of the misnomer. IRA is more about fiscal stimulus than inflation reduction but brings with it the entirely secondary consequence of potentially boosting alternative marine fuel production.

Some energy companies already have plans to produce several million tonnes of blue and green ammonia in the US for use by shipping. A Trump win would put those in doubt. 

Meanwhile at the Albert Embankment, MEPCs in 2024 and 2025 are charged with working out how to make fetch happen in time for the two wayposts.

Options being canvassed so far include a global well-to-wake fuel standard, multiple variations on greenhouse gas pricing, and revenue disbursement mechanisms.

Don’t expect a final deal from MEPC81, although getting the ducks in a row for MEPC82 would be progress. Even then, don’t hold your breath.

Striking a deal on market-based mechanisms will be challenging. Poor countries and big petrostates will oppose carbon taxes as a hit to their economies, and states will fight over where the revenue raised.

The IMO is the way it is, and the news that a contentious debate is heading for a fudge will not shock seasoned observers.

The alternative is substantive regulatory measures, in this context the equivalent of Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick. They would be hugely unpopular among shipowners, and risks sparking a backlash against climate change mitigation measures.

It is rare for the IMO to lay down the law, and often cannot do so even if it wants to, given the omnipresent necessity for multilateral diplomacy.

But there is an obvious precedent in the way the Washington railroaded the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping convention through with some alacrity in wake of 9/11.

The big stick would be the last resort. But last resorts are sometimes unavoidable.

Related Content


  • Related Companies
  • UsernamePublicRestriction



    Ask The Analyst

    Please Note: You can also Click below Link for Ask the Analyst
    Ask The Analyst

    Your question has been successfully sent to the email address below and we will get back as soon as possible. my@email.address.

    All fields are required.

    Please make sure all fields are completed.

    Please make sure you have filled out all fields

    Please make sure you have filled out all fields

    Please enter a valid e-mail address

    Please enter a valid Phone Number

    Ask your question to our analysts