Speaking at the high-level opening of the 2022 UN Ocean Conference, co-hosted by the Governments of Kenya and Portugal, from June 27th to July 1st, UN Secretary-General warns "We cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean".
Many people were thrilled to hear the Marshall Islands, United States, Denmark, and Kenya’s pledges to decarbonise international shipping. After all, this is a sector responsible for 2.89% in global GHG emissions in 2018 (1,076 million tonnes) according to the Fourth IMO GHG Study 2020. If treated as a country, international shipping would be the eight largest GHG emitter in the world.
Speaking at a side event of the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Sue Biniaz, US Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change, declared that the current US administration is "committed to work with other countries in the IMO to adopt the goal of zero emissions - not net-zero emissions - but zero emissions from international shipping by no later than 2050". The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the UN specialized agency responsible for regulating GHG emissions from international shipping.
Back in 2020, the United States supported – along other like-minded countries – draft amendments to the MARPOL Convention Annex VI that would require existing ships to combine a technical and an operational approach to reduce their carbon intensity. The amendments were finally adopted in 2021, amidst experts criticism for its weakness and consistency with holding warming between 3°C and 4°C, instead of 2°C and 1.5°C as stipulated in the 2015 Paris Agreement and today the United States has a new policy approach to climate change.
Kitlang Kabua, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, whose country is a leading voice for climate action at the UNFCCC and the IMO, opened her statement highlighting "the urgent need for an equitable transition to zero emission shipping well-before 2050". She also affirmed that for many years the Marshall Islands, among many of their Pacific allies, have been pursuing a zero emission by 2050 objective at the IMO and that they are finally beginning to see some progress. She concluded by urging IMO Member States to adopt at the 80th session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 80) a Revised IMO GHG Strategy:
"[…] that puts the international shipping sector on a 1.5 degree aligned trajectory. To do this the revised strategy must mandate the complete elimination of all greenhouse gas emissions from the shipping on a full lifecycle basis and with no offsetting by 2050 at the latest".
The world is now on course to reach 1.5°C of warming by 2037 not 2050, warns IPCC report. Making it a critical moment for a Revised IMO GHG Strategy that is aligned to a 1.5°C pathway in the context of sustainable development and equity. The adoption of the Revised IMO GHG Strategy will take place during MEPC 80 by mid-2023.
Minister Kitlang Kabua, Marshall Islands
The same year that the IMO adopted the amendments to the MARPOL Convention Annex VI to cut the carbon intensity of existing ships, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands put forward a Draft Resolution on zero emissions no later than 2050. With no consensus in the Plenary, lacking support even from those who spoke on the need for strong climate action at IMO, the Resolution had to be converted into a statement that was appended to the final report of the MEPC 77.
Politics is not the only barrier to tackle climate change, as an increase in the Levels of Ambition also depends on the understanding of some terms. For instance, "net zero" is only appropriate when expressing efforts by countries to reduce national emissions, as countries have the opportunity for both mitigation of sources of GHG emissions and development of GHG sinks (associated with land use and carbon sequestration processes), whilst "carbon neutrality" only encompasses carbon intensity reductions and the international shipping sector does not only emit CO2 emissions.
Shipping as a sector has only sources of GHG emissions not sinks, explains recent study, validating the Marshall Islands and US pledges to adopt the goal of zero emissions by no later than 2050. In the case of Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS), their delegations often struggle to attend IMO negotiations but they do so because there is no plan B for them in a scenario where the world fails to adopt stringent policies to reduce global warming.
Another IPCC report published this year posits that small islands face an existential threat if global warming rises above 1.5°C. This calls for urgent and ambitious reduction measures across all sectors, including shipping. "The IMO must put a stable and predictable price on shipping emissions at the level that drives the necessary uptake of low- and zero-emission fuels".
"We must ensure the resulting revenues deliver an equitable transition to zero emission shipping and climate resilience in developing countries, including driving investment in renewable electricity generation for the production of zero emission fuels and other uses", Minister Kabua said.
Apart to the current negotiations on the Revised Strategy, the IMO is currently in the process of assessing and selecting proposals on new/innovative emission reduction mechanism(s) to incentivize GHG emission reduction. These could include a proposal by the Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands for the establishment of a universal mandatory GHG levy with an entry level by 2025 of USD$100 per tonne with upward ratchets on a review cycle every 5 years, and a revenue use for in-sector and out-of-sector climate actions in developing countries, particularly SIDS and LDCs.
The Pacific GHG levy has received support from several IMO Member States and Observer delegations. It has also received positive considerations by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment and UNCTAD representatives, giving hope to Pacific Islands who contribute the least to global emissions and yet are severely affected by them.
Dr. Jan Hoffmann from UNCTAD – a UN an advisory body on trade and development affairs within developing countries – spoke at a side event of the Ocean Conference, pointing out the "need to establish a transparent and predictable financing and pricing mechanism" to put a price to carbon in the shipping sector. According to calculations the levy proposal by the Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands could generate USD$72 billion per year, he added.
The Conference’s main outcome is the declaration "Our ocean, our future, our responsibility", which calls to "reduce GHG emissions from international maritime transportation, especially shipping, as soon as possible" and to adopt a Revised IMO GHG Strategy with strengthened levels of ambition that are aligned with the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals.
Aideé Saucedo Dávila is a researcher at University College London’s Energy Institute and a climate negotiator for Tonga at the UN International Maritime Organization. Twitter: @aidee_sd