Calls for urgent action to reduce ship greenhouse gas emissions have been met with heavy push-back by many states and big industry groups meeting at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). A group of Pacific Island and mainly European states clashed repeatedly with those saying that decisions on immediate measures should await the final iteration of the IMO’s comprehensive GHG strategy in 2023, rather than be part of the “initial” strategy in 2018. Green groups Seas At Risk and Transport & Environment, which are members of the Clean Shipping Coalition (CSC) [1], said the most obvious immediate measure is to regulate ship speed, with the feasibility and effectiveness of slow steaming having been proven during the recession.

John Maggs, senior policy advisor at Seas At Risk and president of the CSC, said: “Can a strategy that doesn’t prioritise emissions reductions in the next six years be considered ‘comprehensive’ or indeed fit for the urgent purpose of tackling the climate crisis? We don’t think so. The IMO meeting heard that ship greenhouse gas emissions are rising again and need to peak soon, but key flag states and developing countries blocked an agreement to prioritise and develop measures for immediate short-term emission reductions.”

As precious time was lost in procedural wrangling, a “High Ambition Coalition” of progressive states, together with some prominent industry segments that recognise that shipping must change, have their work cut out for next April when the strategy is due to be finalised.

The CSC presented a study to the meeting which showed that limiting ship speed could, by 2030, see CO2 emission reductions of up to 33% from the three main ship types: containers, tankers and bulk carriers. This would result in a global in-sector saving of around 200 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Significant additional emission reductions from slow steaming can be expected from the other ship types, which are currently responsible for 48% of total ship emissions.

The study suggests that the economic impacts of reduced ship speed on countries far from major markets may be less than a tenth of a percentage point of GDP. Also, such impacts do not take account of the significant cost savings that accrue from reducing speed and burning less fuel, meaning that any speed regulation will likely provide a net financial benefit.

Bill Hemmings, shipping director at Transport & Environment, said: “Operational speed reduction is the only measure on the table that can deliver the substantial and immediate short-term emissions reductions that the Paris agreement demands. It's very feasibility may well be the overriding motivation for the heavy pushback. It can be implemented globally, regionally or between ports. If, after 20 years of work, the IMO’s three-step approach to the climate crisis  – report, analyse, decide – really only amounts to talk, talk, talk, then we should draw the obvious conclusion.”

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