The Secretary General of the International Maritime Organisation last week described the impacts of climate change as an “Orwellian” prospect, but failed to convince developing nations of the need for IMO action on greenhouse gas emissions from ships.

The Secretary General of the International Maritime Organisation last week described the impacts of climate change as an “Orwellian” prospect, but failed to convince developing nations of the need for IMO action on greenhouse gas emissions from ships.

Speaking at the opening of the 58th session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (London, 6-10th October 2008), Mr Mitropoulos continued his attempt to head off developing country objections and push ahead with IMO action on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from international shipping. Regrettably his words failed to convince, and the meeting was characterised by persistent and angry obstruction from China, Saudi Arabia and others who continue to argue that only developed countries should reduce their emissions; approximately three quarters of the world’s fleet are registered in developing countries and vessel owners can switch their country of registry with ease, making action by developed countries alone largely pointless.

Talks on the development of market-based instruments (MBIs) to tackle GHG emissions from shipping were the main victim of this obstruction. Despite substantial support from Europe and around the world there was no detailed consideration of MBIs and a further consideration of the various approaches will now have to wait until the 59th session of MEPC in July of 2009.

Some progress was made on a Design Index aimed at reducing GHG emissions from new ships, but any hint that this might ultimately end up as a mandatory requirement was quickly stamped on by China, Saudi Arabia and others. An Operational Index for voluntary use on existing ships was also considered along with guidelines on best practice in ship management. These various initiatives are to be welcomed but are no substitute for clear reduction targets, mandatory obligations and properly designed market-based incentivisation of GHG emission reduction. The indexes will be discussed further at an intercessional meeting in March 2009.

It’s ten years since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) first tasked the IMO with reducing GHG emissions from shipping, although the IMO has only recently started to work actively on the issue. A post-2012 climate change regime will be agreed by Parties to the UNFCCC in Copenhagen in December 2009, but it looks unlikely that the IMO will have anything substantial to show for its belated efforts. It now seems more likely than ever that the initiative for tackling emissions from shipping will shift to the UNFCCC and to regions, like the European Union, where there is a political will to act.

Address of the IMO Secretary General (6/10/08).

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