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Shipping industry fails to reach agreement on carbon emissions

The world’s leading shipping organisation made a partial agreement on harmful emissions from ships on Friday, but was condemned by campaigners and some MEPs for failing to act more urgently on the problem of the industry’s impact on climate change. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), meeting in London, agreed to cap emissions of sulphur from ships[1], which are a cause of air and sea pollution[2], but on greenhouse gases agreed only to some further monitoring and a fresh round of negotiations. Potential measures to reduce greenhouse gases have been delayed to 2023, which campaigners said was too late.

Sulphur will be capped at 0.5% of shipping fuel content from 2020, not 2025 as some companies and countries had urged. Current levels of sulphur in maritime fuels can be as high as 3.5%[3]. Bill Hemmings, of the campaigning group Transport and Environment, welcomed the move: “The decision reduces the contribution of shipping to the world’s air pollution from about 5% to 1.5% and will save millions of lives in the coming decades. Now the focus should shift towards implementing this decision.”

It is not clear how the sulphur cap will be put into force and how it will be possible to ensure it is followed by all companies involved in shipping. No agreement was reached on capping carbon dioxide emissions[4], although shipping is a fast-growing source of greenhouse gases, projected to account for 17% of global emissions by 2050. Greenhouse gas emissions from shipping have long been omitted from international agreements on climate change, including the UN’s Paris accord signed last year and coming into force next month.

Instead, IMO members agreed to further monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions data from international shipping, with a view to drawing up an action plan to reduce them. But that plan is not likely to be implemented before 2023. The IMO first began to make plans to reduce emissions from shipping in 2003, yet little action has been taken since then.

Shipowners and shipping companies want to guard any data they collect on fuel consumption, seeing it as a competitive issue. Sotiris Raptis, shipping officer at Transport and Environment, said: “This can in no way be seen as a proper response to the challenge laid down by the Paris climate agreement. The International Maritime Organisation is proposing to stall any action until 2023.

The decision to delay by at least a further seven years any agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from shipping constitutes an abject failure by national governments and the shipping industry.” Jytte Guteland, a Socialist MEP, said the agreement reached was not enough: “The shipping sector must play its role in Europe’s transition to a low-carbon society. Time is of the essence, and in the absence of IMO action, the EU must include ships’ emissions in its 2030 climate target.

By setting up a climate fund for shipping, Europe can help industry cut carbon in a cost-effective way.”

Bas Eickhout, a Green MEP, added his support for the EU taking unilateral action: “International shipping is the only transport sector not contributing to climate goals in Europe. Since the IMO will not be considering, let alone proposing, any emissions reduction measures for many years to come, our duty is to make sure that Europe takes action.” Both shipping and aviation have been excluded from international negotiations on climate change, partly because by their nature it is difficult to allocate shipping and aviation emissions to a particular country, and also because of reluctance on the part of both industries – which continue to grow strongly as globalised trade increases – to submit to the international monitoring that climate change regulation requires.

The aviation industry this month took its first steps towards reducing the impact of aircraft on the climate[5]. The International Civil Aviation Organisation agreed that airlines would have to offset some of their emissions by buying carbon credits, which require investment in carbon-reduction schemes such as growing new forests and installing new renewable energy. The shipping industry has been slower to advise such action to its members.

Shipping uses much heavier and thicker fuel than aircraft. Taking action to reduce its sulphur content is therefore important for combating air and sea pollution[6], but the fuel used also produces greater greenhouse gases than aircraft fuel.

Airlines have an economic incentive to use the lightest fuel possible, which can include biofuels derived from plants.

But ships are capable of carrying the heavy and more polluting fuel on their long voyages, and it is cheaper than buying cleaner fuel, so without regulation or government-imposed economic penalties, they are unlikely to change their practices.


  1. ^ cap emissions of sulphur from ships (www.theguardian.com)
  2. ^ air and sea pollution (www.theguardian.com)
  3. ^ Current levels of sulphur in maritime fuels can be as high as 3.5% (www.theguardian.com)
  4. ^ capping carbon dioxide emissions (www.theguardian.com)
  5. ^ took its first steps towards reducing the impact of aircraft on the climate (www.theguardian.com)
  6. ^ Taking action to reduce its sulphur content is therefore important for combating air and sea pollution (www.theguardian.com)

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