Shipping’s climate impact under scrutiny as nations seek emission reductions

The substantial carbon footprint of global shipping networks, which traverse the world’s oceans and sustain the global economy, will face scrutiny in the upcoming week as countries deliberate measures to reduce pollution that contributes to climate change.

At a crucial meeting of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), nations will be under pressure to agree on ambitious targets for emission reduction and explore the possibility of implementing a pollution tax on the shipping sector.

Currently, shipping emits greenhouse gases at a level comparable to aviation.

According to a report, the Marine Environment Protection Commission (MEPC) of the IMO will convene in London from Monday to Friday, and the discussions are expected to bring climate-vulnerable nations, particularly Pacific islands, into conflict with major exporters like China.

Michael Prehn, the IMO delegate for the Solomon Islands, emphasized the urgent nature of the climate crisis for Pacific small island developing states and other countries, pointing out the disparity in resources and priorities among nations.

The Pacific region has consistently advocated for the highest level of ambition in climate regulation.

Shipping currently accounts for approximately two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is considered off course in its efforts to combat climate change.

The existing focus on decarbonization revolves around a 2018 IMO decision that instructed shipping companies to reduce CO2 emissions by 50 percent by 2050, based on 2008 levels.

However, this target is deemed inadequate considering the magnitude of global emissions and in comparison to other industries such as aviation, which is aiming for net-zero emissions by the same deadline.

Countries advocating for more ambitious reductions seek alignment between the IMO’s goals and the 1.5-degree Celsius global warming limit specified in the Paris Agreement.

A group of 45 countries, including the European Union, the United States, Britain, Fiji, the Marshall Islands, and Norway, supports a net-zero emissions target for the shipping sector by 2050. Most of these countries also endorse an intermediate target for 2030.

On the other hand, emerging market exporters like Brazil and China have vehemently resisted change, as per observers involved in the talks leading up to the MEPC meeting.

China, in a briefing note circulated to stakeholders, labeled the proposals as “unrealistic” and viewed them as an attempt by developed countries to enhance their economic competitiveness by increasing shipping costs.

Ships are responsible for transporting 90 percent of the world’s goods, resulting in approximately one billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually—equivalent to the emissions of Germany or Japan.

Nicolas Entrup, director of international relations at the marine protection organization OceanCare, emphasized “the necessity of striving for absolute zero greenhouse gas emissions from shipping by mid-century, with interim targets.”

He expressed the belief that “aligning the IMO targets with those of the Paris Agreement is the obvious choice and emphasized the urgency of taking ambitious action.”

One immediate measure to reduce emissions would be to slow down ships, thereby reducing fuel consumption, according to Entrup.

Different countries have proposed various targets. The EU aims for net-zero emissions by 2050, with a reduction of 29 percent by 2030 and 83 percent by 2040.

Countries such as the United States, Canada, the Marshall Islands, and the Solomon Islands advocate for even more substantial reductions, aiming for a 96-percent cut by 2040.

While some countries remain undecided, there is hope for agreement on the issue, especially since the United Arab Emirates, which will host this year’s UN COP28 climate conference, has reportedly swung in favor of the net-zero emissions goal by 2050.

However, reaching a consensus on another significant proposal—a global levy on shipping emissions—will prove challenging. French President Emmanuel Macron voiced support for the idea at a recent climate finance summit in Paris but stressed that it would require backing from China.

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