In the run-up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has strongly criticised the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for not doing enough to cut carbon emissions from the shipping sector. He said the sector’s current commitments were consistent with global warming above 3 degrees, whereas the Paris Agreement sets a 1.5 degree goal. In this blog, Simon Bullock and Professor Alice Larkin outline new research setting out what shipping needs to do to play its part in meeting the Paris climate goals.
- Current IMO targets see no emissions reductions for the sector before 2030, and would lead to shipping emitting more than double the emissions compatible with limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees.
- Paris-compliant targets require a 34% reduction for international shipping by 2030, and zero emissions before 2050.
- The longer the delay in setting new targets, the steeper subsequent decarbonisation trajectories become. Delay beyond 2023 would mean the transition becomes unfeasibly rapid.
- New targets and policies for rapid decarbonisation need to be in place by the IMO’s planned strategy revision in 2023; the groundwork for this needs to start at the big IMO “MEPC77” meeting this November.
- Nations at COP26 should commit that they will press for tougher and Paris-compatible targets for international shipping.
COP26 is underway and countries are being asked to bring more ambitious climate targets for 2030, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), to bring the world on track to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees.
Such NDCs do not usually include emissions from international aviation and shipping; these sectors’ emissions have historically been seen as the responsibility of UN agencies; the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
These sectors are crucially important. International shipping alone has emissions the size of Germany, but progress in cutting emissions is very slow. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said last month that the sectors’ climate change commitments are consistent with warming above three degrees and the shipping sector’s targets will see no emissions reduction by 2030. These sectors are increasingly becoming the global laggards on climate action.
So what should international shipping do? New research from Tyndall Manchester published last week in Climate Policy sets out the scale of the challenge, and implications for policy makers.
The research calculates the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions international shipping can emit in the future compatible with the Paris 1.5 degree warming target, thus creating a “carbon budget” for the sector. The research then sets out possible pathways compatible with that carbon budget.
The main implication of pathways to meet carbon budgets is the issue of delay. If we delay, more of any given budget is taken in the early years, which means that when we do start to cut emissions, the trajectory to zero has to be steeper, as less of the budget remains. This is a particularly important issue for shipping, because rapid transitions are very unlikely to be feasible. Ships are long-lived, the turn-over of the fleet is slow, alternative fuel infrastructure takes time to build. So there’s a limit to how steep a trajectory we can take and this narrows the range of potential pathways for shipping.
The IMO’s targets and Paris-compatible 1.5°C pathways
The research assesses these pathways, and has three main conclusions.
Firstly, the IMO’s current targets for 2030 and 2050 are far too lax. Their cumulative emissions are over double what is Paris-compatible. The IMO has a strategy revision planned for 2023 – the groundwork to get new targets and policies in place by then needs to start now: via signals from nations at COP26, and then preparatory work at the big IMO “MEPC77” meeting at the end of November.
Secondly, emissions reduction needs to start no later than 2023, to avoid untenably rapid transition rates. Even this requires a full transition to zero emissions in just 25 years – less than an average ship’s lifetime. A 2030 target of 34% cuts, with zero emissions before 2050 would be Paris-compatible.
Thirdly, although the zero emission end date is also important, the most critical issue is ensuring substantial emissions reduction this decade. Policies now for developing new zero emission fuels and their infrastructure are crucial, but they will only deliver substantial carbon savings in the 2030s. Far greater action is therefore needed on operational measures to cut pollution from the existing shipping fleet in the 2020s. This includes slower speeds, wind-assisted propulsion, shore-power infrastructure and stronger energy efficiency policies. Previous Tyndall Manchester research shows that this combination of strong action on existing ships this decade, with scale-up of alternative fuels in the 2030s, can still see shipping play its part in meeting the Paris 1.5 degree goal.
The pressure on the IMO to take greater action is increasing from many directions. During a virtual meeting of the G7 in May 2021 a communiqué was published calling for strengthened IMO ambition. The USA, UK, EU, Norway, Iceland, Costa Rica and Kiribati have also all submitted documents with zero emission proposals to the November IMO MEPC77 meeting.
There has also been a call from Industry for the IMO to do more. The International Chamber of Shipping has called for net zero emissions by 2050, as well as 190 industry organisations and leaders coming together to sign a “call for action” urging Governments to commit to decarbonising shipping by 2050 and with companies such as Amazon and Ikea also committing to only using zero-emission ships by 2040 the pressure is mounting.
But the results of our new research are clear, this pressure needs to be translated into actual movement from the IMO now. New targets, and policies to meet them, cannot wait.
The 2010s have been a wasted decade with no meaningful emissions reduction in shipping. We cannot afford another. This is the last chance saloon for the IMO – it has to act now to address the stark gap between its current targets and what is needed to be Paris-compliant.
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