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Can ships be part of the solution to climate change?

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Bulk container ship, British Columbia, Canada

Excitement is building towards a new global agreement this year in Paris to control global pollution causing climate change, in an effort to keep global temperature increase and related climatic disruptions below a level that avoids the most dangerous impacts.

Virtually all countries are expected to make commitments to reduce their emissions, and the major industrialized and emerging economies are expected to emerge with commitments for all emissions within their territory, resulting in coverage of the vast majority of global emissions.

However, two important sectors that are an integral part of the global economy could be left out of the Paris agreement. Emissions from international aviation and shipping, accounting for more than 5% of global emissions, are not including in country targets, since emissions occur during trips between countries or over international waters.

Setting shipping targets

This week in London, a meeting will take place under the International Maritime Organization (IMO) which will consider a new proposal to establish a target for the global shipping sector, covering the 70 000 odd ocean-going large ships that transport cargo and passengers between countries.

The last time the global community tried to directly tackle emissions from international shipping, the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the IMO discussed various proposals to control greenhouse gas emissions through a range of “market-based measures” for more than a decade before throwing in the towel. The MEPC meeting in May 2013 decided to suspend discussions “to a future session”.

Shipping account for 2-3% of global emissions, and without new measures (like a target or carbon pricing), emissions are expected to grow quickly – according to an IMO study, between 50 and 250% between now and 2050. Such growth will much harder to achieve the urgent global reductions that scientists say are necessary. To stay below 2 degrees, global emissions need to stop growing this decade and then drop quickly to zero by the middle of the century.

World map showing shipping routesMap showing major shipping routes across the globe.

The MEPC did adopt minimum efficiency standards for new ships, but since then progress on control measures has stalled, and even measures to reliably monitor emissions from ships are facing an uphill struggle. Emissions have in fact temporarily declined since the 2009 economic crisis, but this is mainly due to overcapacity in the sector, which resulted in companies adopting “slow steaming” which dramatically increases ship efficiency.

Recently however, with the drop in oil prices, ships in segments with higher demand have been speeding up, which is eliminating any savings achieved previously. A recent study has shown that despite the efficiency measures, current ship designs are in fact less efficient that those built in 1990. Studies have repeatedly shown there is consider room for efficiency improvements and emissions reductions at low or negative costs to the sector.

Shipping solutions

The proposal for a target was submitted by the Marshall Islands, a member of the AOSIS group of small islands particularly threatened by sea level rise resulting from global warming.

This group has at times been ambivalent about measures that could result in increased transportation costs, because their economies are highly dependent on shipping and aviation, and also because some of them, including the Marshall Islands, are home to open shipping registries. As flag states for ships, they are vulnerable to pressure from shipping companies who could easily reflag their ships in other countries.

The fact that the Marshall Islands, with the third largest ship registry in the world, is now making this proposal is a strong indication of the level of concern about the dangers of climate change. If this proposal is taken forward by the MEPC and IMO, it will be a strong sign that the shipping industry is getting on track to being part of the solution to climate change.

Mark Lutes is a Senior Global Climate Policy Advisor for WWF’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative. He is based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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