29th Sep 2023

Shipping facing a reckoning over climate change

  • Shipping is responsible for around two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (Photo: Kwak Dongmin)
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This week delegates from 175 countries will assemble in London for the IMO Marine Environment Protection Commission (MEPC) meeting to try to agree a timeline for completely decarbonising the shipping industry.

Shipping is responsible for around two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, as much CO2 in a year as Germany, but does not have a goal for cutting emissions to net zero yet, and shipping countries are under pressure to come up with a solution.

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The IMO's current target, set in 2018, is for the shipping industry to half emissions by 2050. But United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres on Monday called for shipping countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the sector down to zero by 2050. He urged "ambitious science-based targets starting in 2030 — both on absolute emissions reductions and the use of clean fuels."

If adopted, a mid-century ban would be non-binding but could align the industry with the 2015 Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

A group of 45 countries, including the United States, Britain, Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Norway, plus the European Union, advocate for a net zero target for the shipping sector by 2050, with most also supporting an intermediate reduction target for 2030.

The EU, for example, wants emissions reduced 29 percent by 2030 and 83 percent by 2040. A 2030 goal of a 37-percent emissions reduction is the "bare minimum that's needed for a 1.5 degrees compatible pathway," said Faig Abbasov, shipping programme director at Transport & Environment, a non-governmental organisation.

But large exporters, especially China and Brazil, have resisted higher targets. A briefing note circulated by China described the net-zero target as "unrealistic" and as a way to increase the cost of shipping in the face of competition.

However, others have criticised the draft proposal for being too weak, with Albon Ishoda, the Marshall Islands' special envoy for shipping decarbonisation, telling Bloomberg last week that "net zero isn't enough— it needs to be zero emissions."

Global shipping tax

This week a global tax on shipping will also be discussed, although it is not expected to lead to a new agreement.

French president Emmanuel Macron has been a strong proponent, and recently lobbied for it at the climate finance summit in Paris, which was attended by over 40 leaders from the global south.

"Help us to mobilise at the International Maritime Organization in July so that there is international taxation," he said.

According to the World Bank, such a global levy could generate $60bn [€55bn] a year which could then be used to decarbonise the sector or finance the green transition in developing countries.

Janet Yellen, the US treasury secretary, signalled the Biden administration would consider supporting a shipping levy, though did not endorse it yet.

But to work such a tax would need the buy-in from China — which does not support it.


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