By John Upton
The global shipping industry is poised to take steps this week to begin addressing its heavy role in warming the planet, signaling an important shift following years of recalcitrance on climate change.
The environmental committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations agency, is meeting in London this week to consider new rules that could snowball into meaningful efforts to slow global warming.
The round of talks follows a string of U.N. climate agreements struck during the past 12 months, including a landmark global climate pact negotiated in Paris in December and narrower agreements affecting the aviation and coolant industries during the last month.
“The IMO has been really reluctant to take this issue up,” said John Maggs, a policy expert at the nonprofit Seas At Risk, who is attending the talks in London.
The world’s economy runs via the high seas. Shipping raw materials, manufactured products and fossil fuels and chemicals around the world burns a lot of energy and the fuel used is often cheap and heavily polluting.
Earth’s surface has warmed by about 1°C or nearly 2°F over two centuries, with pollution from fossil fuels and deforestation trapping heat and worsening storms, floods and heat waves. Of the carbon dioxide pollution released globally each year, 2 to 3 percent comes from ship exhausts, with industry climate impacts poised to double during the decades ahead.
Because the shipping industry traverses nations and continents it escaped direct scrutiny under the Paris agreement.
The shipping industry and some nations have strongly opposed efforts to reign in the role of ships in warming the planet. India, China and other large developing countries remain generally opposed, while Europe and most smaller island and African nations are strongly supportive.
Some of the opposition has lately been showing signs of easing.
“There are, on the table here, a number of proposals for the establishment of a work plan and a process that would look at what shipping’s fair share of the burden of tackling climate change would be,” Maggs said. “They were shamed into it a little bit in Paris.”
The proposals being considered this week are modest. Restrictions may be imposed on the amount of sulfur in shipping fuel, which causes poisonous air pollution and affects the climate. And operators of large ships may be required to begin collecting and publishing data on their fuel use.
Perhaps most significantly, many shipping organizations are calling for the sector to determine what its “fair share contribution” to the fight against global warming should be. Some companies and industry organizations have called for “ambitious” action to address greenhouse gas emissions.
Although the shipping industry isn’t directly covered by the Paris agreement, it “accepts that the Paris goals” of keeping global warming below certain temperature limits “applies to all sectors of the global economy,” said Simon Bennett, the policy director at the International Chamber of Shipping.
If the IMO doesn’t address climate pollution from shippers, the industry could face “unwelcome” regulations from the European Union, Canada and California, Bennett said. “Shipping is a truly global industry requiring global rules, otherwise we have chaos and serious market distortion.”