IMO Takes Up the Decarbonization Challenge Once More at MEPC 78

File image courtesy IMO

Published Jun 6, 2022 10:31 PM by The Maritime Executive

The IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee is conducting a virtual meeting this week to consider what could be a significant set of proposals on carbon pricing for marine fuel. Binding decarbonization commitments have yet to emerge from IMO; the agency's initiatives have been overtaken by the efforts of European regulators, who are working on stringent carbon-trading requirements for shipping on domestic and international voyages. A new, ambitious set of emissions regulations at this week's MEPC meeting could put IMO back in the driver's seat and head off the prospect of a region-by-region regulatory patchwork. 

"It is our duty to join worldwide commitments of increased ambition towards tackling climate change. I appreciate the commitment and the efforts of all Member States and the industry for the outstanding work and achievements we have made so far," said IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim in an opening statement. "Now we must be brave and let our industry lead by example and provide substantial progress in our work."

IMO's decisionmaking is consensus-based and driven by the interests of its member states. Its gradual process has drawn oblique criticism from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which advised in its latest report that "improvements to national and international governance structures would further enable the decarbonization of shipping."

At present, IMO's nonbinding "ambition" for decarbonization is limited to a 50 percent reduction by 2050, half the targeted level of the Paris Climate Agreement. This gap has attracted criticism from environmental advocates.

"The IMO must improve its levels of ambition in the recently agreed short-term carbon intensity reduction measures including a 1.5°Celcius -compatible improvement in the carbon intensity of ships," said Dr Sian Prior, Lead Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, a group of NGOs focused on the high north. "As a United Nations agency, the IMO must face up to the realities facing our planet, by aligning its priorities with the UN on climate change, and usings its political power and the shipping industry’s vast technological resources to decarbonize the shipping sector."

Based on the results of a preparatory meeting two weeks ago, progress may be coming at this MEPC. According to Dr. Aly Shaw of the independent consultancy University Maritime Advisory Service (UMAS), "growing consensus was achieved around the need for a basket of measures that would combine a technical element, e.g. a fuel standard, with an economic element, e.g. a [market-based measure]." 

That basket could well include an emissions trading scheme (like the EU ETS) or a bunker levy, and it could be strict. "Many members insist that a [market based measure], as part of a basket, must deliver absolute emissions reductions and have a [well-to-wake] approach. Several highlighted the need for a full GHG scope [including methane]," UMAS reported in a readoout. 

The basket appears unlikely to include the International Chamber of Shipping's International Maritime Research Fund, a $2/tonne bunker tax levy that did not advance at the last MEPC. It did not receive broad support at the pre-meeting either, UMAS reported - though the underlying idea of a levy-funded green fuel research initiative is popular.