IMO’s new emissions targets leave environmental groups unhappy

It was perhaps inevitable and predictable that the new emissions targets published by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) at the end of MEPC 80 on Friday would leave environmental groups and NGOs unhappy.

The IMO said that the strategy provided a “clear direction”, with enhanced targets to reduce harmful emissions. However, the IMO leadership also accepted that its paper was more of a strategy than a timetabled roadmap.

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim called the adoption of the 2023 IMO Greenhouse Gas Strategy “a monumental development for IMO”, while conceding that it was not an end goal, it is in many ways a starting point for the work that needs to intensify even more over the years and decades ahead of us”.

The final document was being studied with the keenness often reserved for official Chinese government announcements or the statements of the chairperson of the NY Federal Reserve, with every choice of word given perhaps undue weight. The consensus was that the final statement was a fraction more committed than had been anticipated.

IMO member countries agreed to reach net zero “by or around 2050”, while “taking into account different national circumstances”. This compared with a hope among environmentalists that the IMO would move from its previous 50% reduction target by 2050 to a lifecycle absolute zero-emissions system with no caveats as regarding the year of “different national circumstances”. There was in particular a fear that the final qualifier could be seen as a get out of jail free card for any country which did not feel like complying

The IMO members also agreed to what were described as no more than “indicative checkpoints” to reduce the total annual GHG emissions from international shipping by at least 20% (but “striving” for 30%) by 2030, compared with 2008, and to reduce the total annual GHG emissions by at least 70% (striving for 80%) by 2040, compared with 2008. “The level of ambition agreed is far short of what is needed to be sure of keeping global heating below 1.5°C,” according to John Maggs, president with the environmental Clean Shipping Coalition.

The IMO has also introduced a significant semantic difference between a “target” and what might be described as an “aspiration”. It could be noted that, while a country might be criticized for failing to achieve a target, no-one was likely to be reprimanded for failing to achieve an aspiration.

Environmentalists highlighted that the “soft targets” and vague wording were far short of what was needed.

The hardline wing of marine environmental activism, Ocean Rebellion, called the IMO a “total failure”. Its demonstrators hung a banner outside the headquarters saying the IMO had sold out to fossil fuels.

Ocean rebellion called the IMO “unfit for purpose. It only acts on behalf of the shipping industry …” although, of course, that is what it was set up to do.

Chris Armstrong of a south of England university said that “by dodging obvious reforms like slow sailing, wind, and less international commerce, the IMO condemns the Paris Climate Agreement to death by a thousand meetings”.

Bo Cerup-Simonsen, CEO of the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Centre for Zero Carbon Shipping called the strategy a step in the right direction, but emphasized that a stronger alignment with the Paris Agreement required a “more progressive reduction of emissions.”

But the general approval came from the insider shipping organizations rather than from the outsider NGOs and environmental campaigners. All were keen to claim that the proposals were “momentous” rather than “vague”.

Denmark-based shipping organization BIMCO said that it saw the 70% target as “groundbreaking”, while the UK Chamber of Shipping welcomed “the progress towards this increased level of ambition.” John Butler, President & CEO of the World Shipping Council, said that, while there remained much to do, “today’s decision broadcasts a strong global signal for investment to the entire maritime sector.”

The International Chamber of Shipping said it “greatly welcomed” an agreement it thought was “ambitious”. Simon Bennet, Deputy Secretary General said that “this historic IMO agreement gives a very strong signal to ship operators and, most importantly, to energy producers who must now urgently supply zero GHG marine fuels in very large quantities if such a rapid transition is to be possible”, although the ICS noted that it was only a partial step. They called on the IMO to agree “rapidly” on the global levy on ships. The World Shipping Council also said that it viewed it as vital that the nuts and bolts measures be brought in to help deliver the interim targets for 2030 and 2040, and the net zero end-goal for “by or around 2050”.

Within the IMO there are at least three identifiable factions when it comes to progress towards the reduction of GHG emissions. Some of the developing world Pacific states, which are among the most exposed to rising sea levels, while welcoming the targets, said that it fell short of the faster and deeper cuts that it and a second faction, the “developed world with a conscience”, consisting of the US, Western Europe and some others, were pushing for.

The third faction, consisting of China, Brazil, Argentina, India and others, did not want to see any formal alignment with the 1.5°C target. The third faction’s desire is to keep shipping sui generis, unique within the global emissions agreements, because of its importance to the world economy. Parallel to that exemption, it also wants the developed world to stop insisting that the developing world adopt ultra-clean environmental strategies after the West had already benefited from its own pollution era in the late 18th and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Countries agreed in Paris in 2015 to try to keep long-term average temperature rises within 1.5°C. Shipping was exempted from the agreement that year, and its move “towards” the Paris agreement will not see it align fully with the 1.5°C target.

A global carbon price, supported by fully developed countries and developing countries under threat from climate change (more than 70 countries combined), has been moved forward as an economic measure under the IMO’s basket of measures, but has been kicked down the road to “debate at future MEPCs”. This led to one commentator referring to the IMO’s “standard strategy” of “death by a thousand meetings”. John Maggs, president of the Clean Shipping Coalition called it a “wish and a prayer agreement”.

Also expressing his opinion forcefully was Faïg Abbasov, shipping programme director at Transport & Environment. He said that “aside from FIFA, it’s hard to think of an international organization more useless than the IMO. This week’s climate talks were reminiscent of rearranging the deckchairs on a sinking ship.”

Madeline Rose, deputy executive director at Pacific Environment, said that the revised green strategy agreed last week would see the shipping industry exhaust its 1.5°C carbon budget by 2032.

Ana Laranjeira, Shipping Manager at Opportunity Green, said that “this week had everything to be a historical moment. The last chance for the IMO to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal of 1.5°C, vital to secure a just and equitable transition for the world’s most vulnerable nations, and protect our global biodiversity, such as the world’s coral reefs which will simply cease to exist in a world above this temperature threshold. This agreement does not get us nowhere near 1.5°C,”, stated.

The World Bank has estimated that between $1trn and $3.7trn could be raised from putting a price on shipping emissions by 2050. However, the revised Strategy states that the earliest such a measure could enter into force is 2027.

“The (the IMO) knew what the science required, and that a 50% cut in emissions by 2030 was both possible and affordable. Instead the level of ambition agreed is far short of what is needed to be sure of keeping global heating below 1.5ºC and the language seemingly contrived to be vague and non-committal. The most vulnerable put up an admirable fight for high ambition and significantly improved the agreement but we are still a long way from the IMO treating the climate crisis with the urgency that it deserves and that the public demands,” said John Maggs.