Ships move over 80% of global trade, which equals billions of tonnes of goods per year. Companies around the world employ a total of more than 90,000 merchant ships, including immense container ships, the largest moving things on earth.
While shipping is by far the most energy-efficient mode of transport, the carbon-rich fuels in use (such as heavy diesel) and the sheer volume of maritime trade have a huge environmental impact. International shipping currently accounts for as much CO2 emissions as Germany’s entire economy, and its share is projected to increase over the coming decades if no measures are being taken. To make matters worse, shipping (together with international aviation) has been excluded from the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol, so neither countries nor shipping companies are under any obligations to reduce shipping emissions.
As of April 13th, 2018, this has changed. The 72nd meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) concluded with the pledge to at least halve shipping emissions by 2050 (compared to 2008 levels), as well as to reduce emissions relative to each tonne of cargo by at least 40% by 2030. There is considerable disagreement between the IMO’s 173 member states regarding the extent of and the means with which to achieve this reduction. Some countries (like the Marshall Islands or the EU) are pushing for more ambitious targets, while others (including the United States, Brazil, Panama, and Saudi Arabia) oppose even the targets described above.
Some proposed measures include a carbon tax, a switch to cleaner fuels, mandatory speed reduction (“slow steaming”), slower transits and bigger ships, cleaner onshore power for ships in port, the usage of electric barges and ferries, and reduced waiting time to unload in port—but all of these come with their own set of problems.
A carbon tax is complicated and time-consuming to implement. The choice of future fuel is highly contentious. Mandatory speed reduction is opposed by Peru, Chile, and other countries because it will complicate trade and interfere with the delivery of fresh goods. Cleaner onshore power and electric barges are not readily available everywhere and require investment. The list of objections goes on, and it is compounded by a serious underlying problem that affects the whole shipping sector.
More than 70% of commercial ships sail under a so-called “flag of convenience”, which means they are registered in a foreign country and sail under this country’s flag while their owner companies reside elsewhere. The most common flag of convenience by far is Panama, followed by Liberia and the Marshall Islands. It is not clear-cut which country is responsible for a ship’s emissions and should attempt to reduce them: is it the country the shipowner is based in, the country of the ship’s flag, the country that owns the port a ships docks at, or even the origin and destination countries of the ship’s cargo?
“Common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) are an important aspect in negotiations surrounding the Paris Agreement. Developing and developed countries might have different responsibilities and contribute differently to the shared goal of carbon reduction. The IMO, on the other hand, has a strict rule that any of its measures must be flag-neutral and not favor or disadvantage vessels on the grounds of their flag. If a ship’s flag would be the deciding factor, Panama would be required to shoulder the overwhelming weight of emission reductions; and furthermore, this policy would lead to ships switching their flags to the most advantageous country. The challenge is to find a way to reduce emissions without placing an undue burden on developing countries and without allowing shipping companies to slip through the cracks.
Before specific measures can be implemented, a closer analysis of the existing impacts has to be done, but the IMO’s statement of intent is a huge step toward cutting down a major source of global CO2 emissions. The IMO will hold further talks to decide on the exact implementation, with the next meeting of the MEPC scheduled for October 2018: and if it follows its current path, the global shipping industry could make a huge contribution to the fight against climate change and set an example for other international industries like the aviation sector.
Dennis Mombauer currently lives in Colombo as a freelance writer and researcher on climate change and education. He focuses on ecosystem-based adaptation and sustainable urban development as well as on autism spectrum disorder in the field of education. Besides articles and research, he has published numerous works of fiction in German and English.