Countries assembled for latest round of shipping industry climate talks have once again declined to accelerate the timeline for improving the sector’s climate targets

Governments participating in a major UN shipping summit may have just flunked the first major test of their climate credentials following the agreement of the Glasgow Climate Pact earlier this month, further fuelling fears that the maritime industry is not doing nearly enough to curb its greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite a flurry of activity at COP26 Climate Summit that suggested nations were finally ready to work together to address the environmental impact of international shipping, reports coming out of the 77th meeting of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO’s) environment committee this week suggest countries have largely failed to break with the UN body’s track record of badly underpowered climate action.

The meeting, which kicked off this week and is scheduled to run until Friday, saw a number of European countries that backed a zero emission shipping by 2050 pact agreed at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow decline to endorse a proposal introduced on the conference floor which would have committed the IMO to delivering net zero emissions shipping by mid-century. While there was agreement around the concept of achieving zero emissions for shipping by 2050, with many positive overtures from delegations on the virtual floor, the consensus was that parties were not prepared to accelerate the IMO’s existing timeline for reviewing its climate targets, meaning the agency’s current target to halve emissions by 2050 – which is badly out of line with global climate goals – will remain in place for at least two more years.

BusinessGreen understands the UK was among eight nations that did back the proposal for a new net zero target, which was introduced by the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and Solomon Island earlier this week at the MEPC 77 meet, alongside the world’s biggest fleet operator Panama and the US, Canada, and Japan. However, France, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and Finland – all of which signed a Declaration on Zero Emission Shipping by 2050 at COP26 – did not endorse the resolution, despite advocating for the goal in principle on the conference floor. Brazil, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are understood to be among the countries that spoke out against both the Pacific Islands’ resolution and the target.

The IMO’s headline climate targets, introduced in 2018, fall far short of delivering the emissions reductions required to achieve global climate goals. They call on countries to deliver a 40 per cent reduction in the carbon intensity of shipping by 2030 and halve the sector’s absolute emissions by 2050, compared to a 2008 baseline. The targets are backed by a new package of fuel efficiency standards and various projects designed to catalyse the development of clean shipping technologies, but campaigners have long argued that the absence of more robust climate regulations and carbon taxes mean the sector is out of step with global efforts to deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Climate Action Tracker initiative has graded the targets as “critically insufficient”, arguing they are aligned with a potentially devastating global temperature rise of 4C this century. And in the run-up to COP26, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the UN bodies that regulate the aviation and shipping sectors to adopt “ambitious and credible targets that are truly consistent with the Paris Agreement”, noting that current plans would track warming “way above 3C”.

Campaigners were this week quick to slam the decision to defer any update to the IMO’s 2050 target by two years, warning a major opportunity to significantly strengthen the IMO’s climate plans has been missed. Lucy Gilliam, shipping policy officer at campaigning organisation Seas At Risk, told the Guardian the meeting had delivered “miniscule progress”, warning the world had 10 years to bring emissions down.

“We need to be halving emissions by 2030,” she said. “To spend two years thinking about revising a strategy – is this incredibly tiny step a valid response to the climate crisis? We are not in climate denial but we are in climate delay and that is dangerous.”

Meanwhile Faig Abbasov, shipping director at green transport group Transport & Environment, said the IMO’s mindset on climate was at odds with society and business. “If the recent COP kept 1.5 degrees alive, the IMO’s decision to not set a target of zero by 2050 has gone a long way to killing it,” he said. “This is unacceptable. In the midst of a climate crisis, it shows the archaic mindset of an organisation that is totally out of step with society and even businesses”.

There had been major hopes that the new initiatives and declarations on tackling shipping emissions seen at the COP26 Climate Summit, which ended in mid-November, could help spark a step change in the drive to decarbonise the shipping sector, which is responsible for around three per cent of shipping emissions.

The UK, US, Panama, Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium were among 15 nations to sign a Declaration on Zero Emission Shipping by 2050 on the sidelines of COP26. Meanwhile, 54 countries signed the Dhaka-Glasgow declaration, which called for a mandatory greenhouse gas emission levy to be introduced on international shipping, with funds going towards “urgent climate actions” in developing countries vulnerable to climate change. Elsewhere, nearly two dozen countries backed the Clydebank Declaration, which aims to  create six “green” shipping corridors by 2025 where ships could be guaranteed access to low carbon fuels. The various new initiatives followed a raft of net zero and green shipping commitments from a number of leading shipping operators and their customers, which have been lobbying the IMO in recent years to strengthen the climate policy regime for the industry as a whole.

However, attempts to encourage the IMO to adopt more ambitious decarbonisation policies have been repeatedly stymied by a coalition of countries that have warned that more demanding emissions targets and standards could drive up costs and unfair;ly penalise poorer nations.

Aoife O’Leary, CEO of Opportunity Green, a non profit and observer to the talks, told BusinessGreen there was now a disconnect between promises made at the Glasgow Summit and the IMO. “There’s really quite a big gap between the ambition and action at the IMO,” she said. “[We saw] great announcements from Glasgow, but where’s the substance?” She added that not only did many of the nations behind the COP26 zero emission shipping declaration decline to advocate for the immediate introduction of a zero emission target, but there were also limited conversations around the proposals for a 1.5C-aligned carbon levy, despite the idea being endorsed by dozens of governments at COP26.

However, O’Leary said some small wins had come out of this week’s meet. “Things are speeding up in the IMO,” she reflected. “Whether that will be at the pace that is required, I am still dubious over. But on balance, I am probably more optimistic after COP26, than I was before.”

Even if countries largely declined to accelerate the timeline to establish a 2050 goal in line with global climate targets, this week’s talks indiciate the IMO, which has long been regarded as a climate policy laggard, is finally poised to table a zero emission shipping target, she said, even if it may take a few more years. “Even if it hasn’t gone through in a resolution, we have a clear indication [that the IMO will endorse] zero by 2050,” she said. “That’s the clear read of the room.”

O’Leary said it was now imperative that all countries – and in particular those that have said they support the zero emission shipping by 2050 target – to start enacting and supporting policies that would enable the maritime sector to curb its environmental footprint. “[Zero emission shipping by 2050] is where the science tells us we have to go,” she said. “We might only get that in writing in 2023. But in the meantime, we’re still working on policies. So, do you have policies that are matching that ambition? At the moment there are proposals on the table, but they don’t have a lot of support.”

This week’s outcome from the IMO is inevitably disappointing for those hoping that the positive momentum behind green shipping seen at COP26 could trigger an immediate and much-needed step change in progress at the IMO. However, it is equally clear that change is afoot at agency and the pressure on the maritime sector to steer a path towards a cleaner future is only going to intensify.

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