International Maritime Organization head of emissions standards on shipping and climate change: global cooperation needed

A pledge to eradicate greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from the global shipping industry by 2050 was announced last week by U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry, putting wind into the sails of international efforts to reduce emissions. But there’s a fear that as some countries sail towards this goal; others – mainly developing nations and small island states – could be left behind.

U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry 
U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry

“[The zero emissions goal] has already created a positive momentum,” Roel Hoenders, Head of Air Pollution and Energy Efficiency at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) said Thursday in an interview with Kristi Pelzel and Henry Kohn of Today News Africa. “We are focused on that goal, but we don’t want that to be to the detriment of other countries.” 

For the shipping industry, the main challenge to meeting the 2050 goal is transitioning to clean energy. “We need to facilitate a shift in heavy fuels, fossil fuels oils, toward alternative fuels and those fuels are most likely hydrogen, ammonia, and biofuels,” Hoenders said.

Currently, the “low-carbon fuels” available are far more expensive than the conventional fuels. For countries located far from their main export markets, heavily reliant on marine transport, or lacking the resources to implement standards, this “shift” to clean energy could disproportionately burden their economies.

“A system,” Hoenders says, “for the price [of alternative fuels] to be matched or bridged,” needs to be implemented.  

Although the overarching climate goal is to cut emissions, the IMO also has a carbon intensity goal, energy efficiency standards, and data collection on fuel consumption requirements, among others.

To implement any of this requires technical expertise and access to technology – these resources are not evenly distributed. “Technology is available in certain parts of the world, which have large maritime centers,” Hoenders said.

To increase access to technology, the IMO has built a global network of “transport corporation” centers. “We have set up MTTCs or Maritime Transport Technology Corporation Centers…and we have set them up in Africa, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and South East Asia,” Hoenders said. “There are many things that can be done to improve the efficiencies of a ship and these are things we like to share.”

Another goal of these centers is to boost private sector participation in technology development.

Hoenders also sees private sector investment, in particular that of U.S. banks, as playing a role in developing standards at the IMO.  “We hope that the commercial banks in the U.S. will…put efficient ships in their portfolios, which will help the IMO in developing their regulatory processes in years to come,” he said.

It’s not just that the IMO, as a UN organization, works to balance the interests of its 174 member-states and 3 associate members; there is a real need to include all countries in its emission reduction efforts – not doing so would be futile.

This is partly because the countries with the highest industry emissions are not the ones with the highest total emissions, nor are they large economies. In 2019, the top three industry emitters – Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands – represented over 30 percent of total emissions in shipping alone, according to Statista data. China took the 8th spot; the U.S. and India were not in the top ten.

 “We don’t need to end up with a patchwork of regulations that leave out developing countries because that would be a short term gain, but not work in the long term,” Hoenders said.

According to Hoenders, one set of standards that is currently in development is life-cycle assessment “guidelines” for alternative fuels including liquefied natural gas (LNG), hydrogen, biofuels, and ammonia. Accounting for all the GHG emissions in the manufacture and use of a fuel – and standardizing these measurements – is critical to truly achieving climate goals.

Even before Kerry made his announcement, Hoenders was optimistic about the IMO’s 2018 emissions target. In his view, because nearly every member-state adopted it, this showed that the total level of ambition was rising. “I think there is a will to reduce greenhouse gasses,” he said, speaking to past achievements as well as looking ahead to 2023 when the IMO’s initial strategy will be revised. “There are many countries within the IMO that have been very active and have been quite outspoken and ambitious.”

Nevertheless, a U.S. commitment to international cooperation is certainly promising.

“The United States is committing to work with countries in the International Maritime Organization to adopt a goal of achieving zero emissions from international shipping by 2050,” Kerry announced in the lead up to the Leaders Summit on Climate.

President Joe Biden passes blooming magnolia trees as he walks through the Rose Garden of the White House Friday, March 26, 2021, to the Oval Office. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz) 
President Joe Biden passes blooming magnolia trees as he walks through the Rose Garden of the White House Friday, March 26, 2021, to the Oval Office. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

The task now is to develop and implement policies to meet this goal. “In the years to come, [the IMO] will help to shape the strategy to zero,” Hoenders said.

Meanwhile, there are those who argue the U.S. should do more to reduce emissions in its own shipping industry.

Dan Hubbell, Shipping Emissions Campaign Manager at the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit that works to protect the ocean and which part-organized the event where Kerry made his announcement, argues the U.S. should include measures to reduce emissions in the U.S. shipping industry as a part of meeting its NDC and work to “eliminate” shipping emissions in the U.S. by 2035. 

“The next step to take would be including shipping and other ocean-based climate solutions in the U.S. Nationally Determined Contribution,” Hubbell said in a statement. “We also hope to see a more ambitious timeline of eliminating shipping emissions here in the U.S. specifically by 2035.” 

Kristi Pelzel is a Senior White House correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Kristi also covers the US Department of State and the United Nations. She holds a master's degree from Georgetown University.

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