Latest round of UN climate talks for shipping delivers mixed results, offering progress on black carbon while a resolution for a 2050 zero emission target was quashed

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has this afternoon urged member states and shipping operators to reduce the black carbon emissions produed by shipping in the Arctic, in a move that campaigners said would send a strong message to regional and state policymakers to take action to tackle the pollutant.

The resolution agreed by all parties at the UN talks this afternoon “urges” member states and ship operators to “voluntarily” move from heavier, more polluting fuel oils to cleaner and distallate fuels or alternative methods of propulsion in order to reduce the impact of black carbon emissions in and around the Arctic.

Black carbon is a potent, short-lived greenhouse gas that is responsible for roughly seven per cent of global shipping’s impact on the climate, second only to carbon dioxide. When black carbon settles onto snow and ice, it accelerates melting and leads to a loss of reflectivity that creates a feedback loop that exacerbates global temperature rise.

Dr Sian Prior, lead advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance campaign group, said the new resolution was an important “first step” towards reducing the impact of the shipping sector on Arctic ecosystems and indigenous and local communities from the UN agency, which has a track record of underpowered climate action.

“What is important is that this resolution now sends a strong message that domestic and regional action to reduce black carbon emissions from ships should proceed,” she said.

If all shipping that currently uses heavy fuel oils in the Arctic were to switch to distillate fuels or other clean energy sources, black carbon emissions in the region could be reduced by 44 per cent, according to the Clean Arctic Alliance. Moreover, it estimates that particulate filters installed on board of vessels could slash emissions by more than 90 per cent.

Arctic shipping is increasing as melting sea ice opens up new routes that allow shipping companies to capitalise on shorter trans-Arctic voyages. Meanwhile, black carbon emissions are also on the rise, with Clean Arctic Alliance noting that black carbon emissions increased 85 per cent between 2015 and 2019.

The breakthrough on black carbon came as countries assembled at the 77th meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environmental Protection Commiteee declined to rally behind a separate proposal which would have seen the agency commit to a headline 2050 zero emission shipping goal.

The IMO’s current greenhouse gas reduction strategy falls far short of delivering emissions reduction required to achieve global climate goals and as such the agency has faced growing pressure from campaigners and the UN Secretary General to update both its short- and long-term climate targets. The current plan commits the shipping industry to slashing its emissions in half by 2050 and delivering a 40 per cent reduction in the carbon intensity of shipping by the end of this decade – goals that have been graded by the Climate Action Tracker group as “critically insufficient” and in line with a devastating 4C of global temperature rise.

But despite growing calls for the IMO to strengthen its targets in the wake of this month’s COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, a resolution submitted by a trio of Pacific island nations for a 2050 zero emission shipping target garnered support from just handful of countries on the conference floor. Despite the majority of countries supporting some form of net zero or zero emission target by 2050 in principle, the consensus was to stick to the IMO’s existing timetable, which would not see its current targets revisited until 2023. 

However, the IMO’s environment committee did confirm this afternoon that it “recognised the need to strengthen the ambition of the Initial IMO GHG Strategy during its revision process” and has invited all member states and organisations to work together to submit concrete proposals at next year’s MEPC meeting.

The Clean Arctic Alliance slammed member states at the IMO for failing to endorse the net zero resolution set out by the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and Solomon Islands, noting that any effort to reduce black carbon had to happen in parallel with measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping.

“It has long been recognised that what happens in the Arctic, doesn’t stay in the Arctic, and will have repercussions elsewhere through sea level rise and changing weather patterns,” said Prior. “In light of this, the lack of support for the proposed resolution from vulnerable low-lying island states is an unacceptable response to the climate crisis.”

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