In a serious blow to the Arctic and global heating the shipping industry last week firmly cemented its long-standing reputation for low ambition and prevarication on climate action. In a series of decisions at its June 10-17 Marine Environment Protection Committee meeting, the UN’s International Maritime Organisation, the body responsible for regulating international shipping, rejected the pleas of all those crying out for ambitious climate action.

Shipping is responsible for around 3% – and growing fast – of all GHG emissions. If it were a country, it would be the 6th largest polluter, but there are no regulations in place to ensure it plays a proper role in tackling the climate crisis.

An agreement on an “urgent” short-term measure to reduce shipping’s carbon intensity contains no enforcement mechanism and a level of ambition that was deliberately calibrated to be the same as business as usual. Reduction rates were chosen because they were the same as what had happened historically and in the absence of regulation! With increases in shipping activity this will allow ship emissions to continue growing, perhaps by as much as 16% by 2030. The 1.5% annual improvement required by the measure is nowhere near the 7% annual improvement needed to keep warming within the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C temperature goal.

The meeting also considered two proposals for measures that would put a price on the carbon emitted by ships. One, from industry, priced at 70 cents (yes cents, not dollars) per tonne of CO2 emitted with funds going to R&D, and another from Pacific small island states with a carbon price of $100 per tonne of CO2 emitted. At 70 cents per tonne the industry levy will have no effect whatsoever on emissions, and the problem isn’t R&D, which is happening anyway, but the urgent need to roll-out new technologies. The industry proposal looks more like a smokescreen for further inaction, than a genuine contribution to climate action, one designed to take up valuable IMO time that might otherwise be spent discussing and agreeing real climate action. The proposal should have been chucked out immediately but was allowed to go forward for further discussion at the next meeting. While the proposal for a $100 per tonne fuel levy also gets to live another day, it’s future is uncertain with extensive opposition from industry groups and many states.

Finally, and perhaps most worrying for the Arctic, the meeting failed after ten plus years of deliberation to act on ship-source black carbon emissions, a potent short-lived climate forcer responsible for c. 20% of shipping climate impact. The Arctic is melting 3 times faster than the rest of the world and emissions of black carbon from the burning of dirty ship fuel is contributing to the acceleration of this warming and the consequent melt of multi-year Arctic sea ice. Yet the IMO couldn’t even find time to consider a pre-prepared resolution asking states and ships to voluntarily switch to cleaner fuels in the Arctic while a regulatory measure is prepared.

Any one of the above developments would be a serious setback; taken together they suggest a crisis at the IMO.

The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, recently observed that we are “coming to the point of no return” on climate action, and that “when you’re on the verge of the abyss, you need to make sure your next step is in the right direction.” Seemingly determined to do the wrong thing, the IMO and the shipping industry appear perfectly happy to leap into the abyss.

And what lessons can we learn from all this. Well, we can’t stop putting pressure on the IMO, that’s for sure, but with every new IMO failure the argument for national and regional measures grows stronger. Before this year that meant primarily EU action, but with an ambitious US back at the table the possibilities are greatly increased.

Time is running out for climate action. While waiting for the IMO to come to its senses, ambitious states should put aside any squeamishness they might have about national and regional action targeting foreign ships and start designing measures that can be applied quickly to all ships visiting their ports. There’s no legal obstacle to requiring a ship entering your port to have reduced its climate emissions, and a national or regional measure that respects the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals would be a measured and entirely reasonable riposte to the scandalous lack of action seen at IMO last week.