The Shipping Industry Could Move from Laggard to Leader on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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Shipping Industry, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, International Maritime Organization


In April 2018, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted an initial strategy on the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from ships. This achievement — which seeks to tackle the GHG emissions of the international shipping industry — represents the IMO’s contribution to the global response to climate change as set out in the Paris Agreement, namely the commitment to keep the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to strive to limit it to 1.5 degrees or less. Emissions from international shipping currently represent just over two percent of global emissions but would increase significantly if the industry continued to operate on a business-as-usual scenario.

The IMO deliberations took place at the seventy-second session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 72) after protracted and at times divisive negotiations. The IMO was under intense pressure to show leadership on this critical issue, not only because of its urgency but also because of the potential for unilateral efforts by the European Union and the need to bridge wide differences between major maritime states, while also demonstrating sensitivity and responsiveness to the plight of developing countries, most notably small island developing states. The initial reactions from the IMO itself, and from member states, industry bodies, environmental non-governmental organizations, external stakeholders and observers, have been generally positive ­­— some hailing it as a landmark achievement, others expressing more cautious optimism. To what extent and in what respects is the positive response justified?