Taking my morning walk across the Thames River in London to an International Maritime Organization (IMO) meeting, I notice something different than most days. As I get closer I realize that there is a protest taking place outside the normally quiet IMO building. It’s Extinction Rebellion, a U.K. activist group demanding immediate and comprehensive action on climate change. Having helped galvanize the U.K. and other nations to declare ‘climate emergencies’ that prioritize climate-friendly policies, they have now set their sights on ‘waking up’ the slow-paced and deliberate work of the IMO, the United Nations specialized agency where the nations of the world meet to regulate the global shipping industry. I am handed a pink, frosted cookie by a man dressed as a baker who reminds me that ‘the world is watching’ the IMO and that addressing the causes of climate change requires urgent action. I agree wholeheartedly and head inside.
The world is scrambling to address the causes of climate change and meet the goals of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) laid out in the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). But many challenges that were not included in the agreement remain. One such challenge comes in the regulation of global shipping. The 3% of global GHGs emitted from shipping are not included in the agreement and global regulators have been slow to address the issue. Considering that this level of emissions puts global shipping on par with one of the top five emitting countries, such as Germany or Japan, taking immediate action to reduce shipping emissions can make a big difference.
Ninety percent of global trade takes place via ocean transport, making shipping reform a complicated and important task. Ocean Conservancy will continue to be at the IMO to directly address this issue. There has already been some good progress: the nations that make up the IMO recently agreed to work on reducing GHGs from shipping. This is largely due to a small coalition of ocean and shipping-related organizations that have tirelessly educated regulators and worked with good actors within the shipping industry to find the right path. Much more is needed to reduce GHG emissions in the shipping industry.
The good news is that the IMO will adopt a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Plan in 2023 and that the goal will be to reduce emissions by 50 to 100% by 2050. The bad news is that they are currently stalling on immediately implementing reasonable and proven actions that will cut emissions—such as slow steaming, which basically means adopting a global speed limit. For example, slowing ships down by only 12% has been shown to reduce emissions by nearly a third while only negligibly impacting trade.
The pink frosted cookie I ate that was meant to be an IMO wake-up call was pretty good. As were the IMO meetings. Although a new proposal to require slow steaming was not adopted, progress was made. It is becoming clear that both the industry and some countries that have not actively participated in addressing climate change are waking up to the reality that major reform is not only feasible, but also urgent. The next few years are critical, however, and Ocean Conservancy is committed to ensuring action is taken swiftly. Although it sometimes feels like an uphill struggle, we remain confident that not only will the countries of the IMO do the right thing, but they will also provide an example of how to reduce emissions immediately, while working to eliminate them in the long run. And after that happens, I’d be happy to provide the celebratory cookies.