Achieving net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century — which scientists agree is necessary to avoid catastrophic social, ecological and economic impacts — requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to reimagining the global economy. The maritime analogy is particularly apt because much of the global economy is dependent upon shipping, which moves 90 percent of global trade on some 90,000 commercial vessels.
Emissions from shipping alone amount to 3 percent of global emissions and they are quickly growing; they increased by 10 percent in the six-year period from 2012 to 2018. At this pace, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations shipping agency, has estimated that by 2050 emissions could grow by up to 130 percent of 2008 levels.
Needless to say, this is an unacceptable increase at a time when other sectors are working to constrain emissions. So back in 2018, the IMO announced a goal of reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2050. Taking into account the projected increases in emissions mentioned above, this means the IMO has set a goal of reducing emissions by up to 180 percent by mid-century. Anyone who has followed the IMO, or has a basic grasp of math for that matter, knows that this goal is purely for show.
Last week the IMO adopted measures that it claims will achieve that goal, and civil society was unimpressed, to say the least. The new measures require shipping companies to track and rate the energy efficiency of their ships and, for ships receiving a “D” rating for three years in a row, the company must provide “corrective action plans” describing how they intend to improve those numbers. These plans will not be made public and there is no mention of how, or if, companies will be held accountable for implementing them.
Setting aside concerns about self-reporting and enforcement, the requirement won’t be implemented until November 2022. If all goes smoothly, the first ratings will be assessed in 2024, and it will therefore be at least three years until any “corrective action plans” will be required. There are no enforcement mechanisms, no linkages to national pledges and no recognition of the Paris Agreement goals or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — the two flagship UN agreements on these matters.
At a time when energy and infrastructure sectors are retooling to achieve national net-zero pledges this decade, the IMO’s lackadaisical approach is strikingly arrogant. National governments from the EU to the U.S. have indicated an intention to push back, but the international nature of the industry does not lend itself to national regulation.
Undeterred, the IMO added insult to injury at the same meeting last week and thumbed its nose at the Arctic region — the at-risk area warming three times faster than the rest of the planet — by slow-walking a ban on heavy fuel oils (HFOs) in the region. HFOs, the dirtiest shipping fuels available, are known to generate substantial black carbon, which diminishes air quality and darkens snow and ice, accelerating melting. Its density means that any spills would be long-lasting and devastate Arctic ecosystems. The new “ban” will not formally take effect until 2024 but is laced with waivers and exemptions that will delay the complete ban until 2029 at the earliest.
So, what is it with the IMO? How can an agency that is part of the UN be so climate-backward? How has industry managed to exercise such control over the agency agenda? The agency’s mission is to take care of shipping safety and security and prevent marine and atmospheric pollution — not preserve the bottom line of shipping interests. The mission statement inexplicably claims that the IMOs work “supports the UN SDGs” at a time when its actions run counter to both the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. Are we looking at a real, live rogue agency right out of an Avengers movie? Hail Hydra?
If so, its days may be numbered as an apologist for the shipping industry. Other sectors, increasingly cornered into absorbing losses and making difficult choices in the name of climate action, are not likely to tolerate a sector seeking to shirk responsibility. The shipping industry leaders who pull the IMO’s strings are already coming under greater scrutiny. The International Chamber of Shipping, the trade association for 80 percent of the world’s shipping, may soon find itself facing the same criticism as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, famous for funding and supporting climate denial in the U.S. and now frantically trying to establish climate bona fides and avoid further corporate defections.
The urgency of the climate crisis could be the catalyst that brings much-needed change in maritime operations and governance.
The good news is that solutions are at hand. Efficient ship designs, improved onboard technology and reduced speed limits can lower fuel consumption dramatically, while alternative means of propulsion using wind, hydrogen and other sources of energy provide hope for transformative solutions. Cities have already begun to examine and improve the energy efficiency of their shoreside operations. All of these innovations and improvements mean jobs and opportunity in the many trades associated with shipping — from port operations to manufacturing and container operations to passenger fleets.
All that is lacking, as is the case across the board when it comes to energy transitions, is the political will to implement the new technologies and hold bad actors accountable. The United Nations should look inward at its own bad actor. Meanwhile, the U.S. and other nations, particularly flag nations for large shipping fleets, should establish rigorous regulatory standards to induce climate action across the maritime trades.
Making up for lost time will be challenging, but the opportunities far outweigh the costs. The maritime trades have always prided themselves in adaptability so, to paraphrase Admiral David Farragut: Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
Joel Clement is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Prior to joining UCS and the Belfer Center, Clement served as an executive for seven years at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since resigning from public service in 2017, he has received multiple awards for ethics, courage, and his dedication to the role of science in public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @jclementmaine.
This piece has been updated.