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Climate deal for shipping sector to be decided this week

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Ships are at the heart of the globalized economy. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, this industry is responsible for transporting more than 90% of world trade. It is also a heavyweight in greenhouse gas emissions. If the sector were a country, it would be the world’s 6th large emitter, with over 2% of global emissions.

To reach the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C, we will need to scale up actions immediately to reduce emissions, and completely decarbonize the global economy by 2050. Shipping cannot be left behind in this race to a zero carbon world.

A successful agreement would be one in line with staying below 1.5°C

Negotiators from over 100 countries are meeting in London this week to decide on an Initial Strategy to address greenhouse gas emissions from this sector. If approved, this will be the first major multilateral climate agreement to be negotiated since the Paris Agreement entered into force in 2016.

A successful agreement would be one in line with staying below 1.5°C which means aiming for decarbonizing the shipping sector by 2050, with short term and medium term actions and targets in line with that goal.

This is the proposal of a large group of countries, including small island states most threatened by rising seas and many other developed and developing countries.

Shipping emissions responsibility of IMO

International shipping emissions are not included in national targets, and, like international aviation, are the responsibility of specialized UN agencies. For shipping it the International Maritime Organization, whose Marine Environmental Protection Committee has been working to develop a strategy to control greenhouse gas emissions from the sector.

A group of small island countries, including the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Fiji, Kiribati, Vanuatu and many others, whose very existence is threatened by rising temperatures and sea levels, are insisting on strong measures and targets required to hold warming to the 1.5°C limit, including the possibility of complete decarbonisation by 2050. To meet this objective, action must start now, so short and medium term actions and targets are also essential.

A delay in reaching an agreement on climate targets would send the wrong signal

However, some countries are opposed to adopting any absolute emissions reduction target, and argue for delaying any such target for another 5 years, when more precise data will be available. Such a delay would send a signal to the shipping industry and to the world that there is no urgency in reducing emissions, and could contribute to putting the 1.5°C objective out of reach.

Several studies have shown that the technology already exists to decarbonize the shipping sector, and the shift to zero carbon shipping has accelerated dramatically since Paris. Battery powered ships are already in operation for short routes. Alternative zero and low emission fuels are already available, and synthetic fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia can be rapidly scaled up as renewable energy costs from solar and wind continue to decline. The costs of decarbonizing maritime transport could be within the range of fluctuations of fossil fuel prices over the past decade.

IMO should aim to completely decarbonize by 2050

WWF calls on the the IMO to agree on an Interim Strategy signalling an effort to completely decarbonize by 2050 and undertake actions immediately to that end. In our view, there are three ‘must haves’ in the climate agreement:

  1. Commitment to strive for complete decarbonization of the global shipping sector by 2050.
  2. Immediate pursuit of ambitious actions and medium term emissions reduction targets that put the sector on the path to decarbonization.
  3. Consideration of measures to address demonstrable disproportionate impacts on developing countries, in particular least developed countries and small island developing states, which do not undermine the ambition and environmental integrity of emissions reduction targets and measures.

If the IMO and the shipping sector get this right, it can rightly claim leadership and become a champion in the race to a zero carbon world. This would create an important precedent for coordinated actions by other sectors of the global economy.

Mark Lutes is a Senior Global Climate Policy Advisor. He is based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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