By R. Bruce Striegler

Many in the transportation sector saw the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as an opportunity to counter criticism of the industry’s environmental practices, presenting proposals to reduce or mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the sector. But even those in the industry are calling for change. Shipping is a polluting industry, says the influential International Transport Forum in an analysis prepared for COP21. The October 2015 issue of the forum’s Policy Brief analyzes the performance of the industry and draws disturbing conclusions that should be read very closely by shipping company executives.

It says greenhouse gas pollution emitted by shipping is unacceptably high even by today’s standards and would need to be halved by 2050 in order to meet the collective objective of restricting global warming to a 2°C pathway. On their current path, emissions are set to rise substantially, compelling the industry to take corrective action. At the same time, a joint appeal by the United Nations Environment Programme and its World Health Organization in Geneva, just issued in time for COP21, calls for a quick ban or tight restrictions on the emission of black carbon. It is released through the combustion of the dirtiest and cheapest shipping bunker fuels whose use is prohibited in the Antarctic but still permitted in Arctic waters.

The London-based International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Secretary-General is aware of the industry’s pollution issues. A study commissioned by IMO shows that in the absence of reforms, the current volume of global shipping emissions would increase halfway through this century by 50-250 per cent. Alternatively, the industry must set out to double its transport efficiency performance now. Mr. Sekimizu reportedly fears any change that might disturb the current fragile economic status of the industry. He issued a pre-conference appeal to COP21 for patience with shipowners as they approach their role as the principal facilitators of world trade. Mr. Sekimizu was rewarded when the final draft of the agreement was published.

Future emission regulation must be global and neutral

The final draft agreement failed to mention transportation or shipping interests. IMO had succeeded in lobbying that the management of carbon emissions be vested in its own authority rather than assumed under the COP21 process, over the objections of European Community Shipowner’s Association members like Maersk Lines. In a statement the company says, “Maersk acknowledges the need to regulate the environmental impact of shipping and emphasizes that any future regulation needs to be global, flag neutral, and reward early movers. We are ready to compete in a level playing field, carbon constrained economy.” Maersk Group has set a target to improve its CO2 efficiency across the Group by 30 per cent by the end of 2020 from a 2010 baseline. For Maersk Line, which accounts for 80 per cent of the Group’s CO2 emissions, it also set an ambitious target of 60 per cent reduction per container by 2020.

Critics of the agreement have said that the absence of shipping and aviation from the final deal undermines the prospects of keeping global warming below the 1.5°C target and casts doubts over who is responsible for regulating emissions from shipping and aviation. Even shipping industry stakeholders, such as the International Chamber of Shipping, say they would have liked the deal to include acknowledgment of the importance of IMO’s role in continuing to develop further CO2 reduction measures. While the final text makes it unclear who will act when it comes to regulating the private sectors, renewed momentum (and pressure) in IMO makes it clear that regulation of shipping emissions is needed now more than ever.

International Maritime Organization says they’re capable regulators

“The absence of any specific mention of shipping in the final text will in no way diminish the strong commitment of IMO as the regulator of the shipping industry to continue work to address GHG emissions from ships engaged in international trade,” responded IMO Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu in a statement. The International Chamber of Shipping welcomed the verdict of the UN Federal Climate Change Commission (UNFCCC) Paris COP21 agreement excluding shipping, as well as aviation, from its regulatory framework. In a statement it said that “Unilateral or regional regulation” would have been “disastrous for shipping and disastrous for global CO2 reduction, whereas IMO is already helping shipping to deliver substantial CO2 reductions on a global basis.”

ICS said that shipping’s exclusion represented a “clear message” from the world’s governments that IMO is a capable regulator of ship emissions. “CO2 is a global problem and shipping is a global industry,” said its spokesperson. “IMO is the only forum which can take account of the UN principle of ‘differentiation’ while requiring all ships to apply the same CO2 reduction measures, regardless of their flag State. “I am sure IMO Member States will now proceed with new momentum to help the industry deliver ever greater CO2 reductions, as the world moves towards total decarbonization by the end of the century,”

Of the nearly 200 countries participating at COP21, more than 75 per cent of the plans announced identified transport as an opportunity for emissions reductions. More than half contain specific measures for mitigation actions related to transportation. According to the International Energy Agency, GHG emissions from transportation will increase 120 per cent from 2000 to 2050, largely as a result of a projected three-fold increase in the number of cars worldwide. Currently, global transport is responsible for nearly 7.19 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions, or around 23 per cent of energy related emissions.

The issue for many following COP21 was whether or not all the thousands of words, all the declarations will translate into action. Former Alberta Premier Allison Redford, now Executive Director of the Canadian Transition Energy Initiative, writing for the Conference Board of Canada says, “Reaching agreement among the world’s scientists and political leaders about the urgent need to reduce emissions outputs may have been the easy part. Now the real test comes in seeing how quickly national actors and industry choose to respond.”

She adds that while Canadian provinces are moving forward, they do so at many different levels, with different frameworks, different targets, and at different paces. It is the provinces who will feel the political pressures most acutely. Those pressures include how to transition their respective energy economies, each with different transportation and export infrastructures, to support international exports while still keeping overall emissions targets in mind. Redford says, “The greatest challenge to achieving the targets set by COP21 lies in the fact that while the policy goal is global, its implementation is still grounded locally—in the actions of national players who have many interests and pressures to address, not the least of which is accountability to their electorate.”