UN shipping agency climate talks again held back by handful of blockers

  • Despite widespread support for keeping warming below 1.5 degrees and for ending ship climate emissions by 2050, IMO fails to agree new goal.
  • Russia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, China, and Argentina thwart 100+ country consensus in favour of aligning shipping with Paris Agreement goals.
  • A majority of countries favour a basket of mid-term measures to tackle emissions – including both a carbon levy and a fuel standard, with talks resuming in 2022.

26 November 2021 – The outcome of this week’s climate talks at the UN’s shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), is yet another blow to any efforts to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions from ocean shipping, and to align the sector with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. 

Even though most of the 175 IMO member states have publicly supported the need for zero emissions or carbon neutral shipping by 2050 (compared to the current target of only halving emissions by 2050) there was not majority support at MEPC77 to adopt the Pacific Islands resolution along these lines – with Brazil, Russia, China, and others opposing the proposal and the EU27, Norway preferring instead to raise ambition only when the initial GHG Strategy is reviewed in two years’ time.

This came only two weeks after the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, which saw broad support for urgent decarbonization of the sector. Science is clear: governments must urgently act to halve shipping emissions by 2030 to keep the 1.5° safe warming limit within reach.

We welcome the support of more countries for a “zero emissions” by 2050 goal, versus a smaller group of countries in favour of “net zero” by 2050 (MEPC 77/J/5/Rev.2, paragraph 7.4). This confirms the approach of the Initial Strategy, that false solutions like “carbon offsets” are not accepted at IMO, and that the goal is firmly in-sector decarbonisation.

John Maggs, Clean Shipping Coalition, said:Ambition at the IMO has again been held hostage by a small group of countries hell bent on rendering the organisation impotent on the most pressing issue of our age. There was a clear and substantial majority in the room for greater climate ambition but Russia, Saudi Arabia and others ensured that the IMO  again failed to move the dial on ship climate action. With every delay the scale of the task gets greater, and ship emissions must halve by 2030 if we are to save 1.5 degrees.

Faig Abbasov, Transport & Environment, said “When it comes to mandatory measures on green shipping fuels, the can has been kicked down the road to 2022 without any commitment to speed up their adoption. IMO negotiations are like a soap-opera. Whenever you think that the momentum for action is ripe, you then realise that there are still many seasons before a final decision is taken.

Lucy Gilliam, Seas at Risk, said: “Those stopping action on climate at IMO are also stopping the organization from dealing with many other important environmental issues. The blockers have caused dangerous delays to almost every item on the agenda. After 2 years of deferrals, the urgent topic of plastic pollution from shipping was given barely an hour for discussion with every item deferred to the following year. The problem here is a systemic one.” 

Background information:

The IMO’s 77th Marine Protection Committee session (“MEPC77”) met virtually and in person on November 22-26 to discuss the revision of the current greenhouse gas target for 2050 to align with the Paris Agreement’s goals as well as mid-term measures to reduce emissions.

  • On revising the 2050 emissions target: IMO member states did not reach an agreement on revising the IMO’s current target and on committing to reducing shipping emissions to zero by 2050. They failed to show sufficient support for the proposed resolution for zero shipping emissions by 2050 put forward by the Marshall and Solomon Islands, despite the broad support for the target. The resolution would have gone through if EU countries had supported it. Further revision of the target will not take place until 2023.
  • Countries supporting the zero by 2050 target: EU27, Georgia, Norway, Republic of Korea, Bahamas and Kenya
  • Countries opposed to this: Brazil, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Paraguay, Nigeria, South Africa, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, and Iran.
  • On mid-term measures to reduce emissions: IMO member states moved forward all proposals for mid-term measures to the ISWG-GHG 12 meeting in 2022. A clear preference was given to market-based measures, including a carbon levy, and to a fuel standard. 
  • Countries in favour of a carbon levy (in particular or as part of a basket of measures) and/or a fuel standard included: the EU27, Canada, Japan, Liberia and Pacific Islands countries
  • Countries opposing a carbon levy and/or a fuel standard included: Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Argentina, China, Chile, South Africa and Russia 

Key facts on shipping:

  • Around 90% of all traded goods are transported across oceans on cargo vessels, with a vast majority powered by fossil fuels such as heavy fuel oil.
  • The UN estimates that shipping currently accounts for 3% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists warn that by 2050  this could well represent up to 10% of all emissions.
  • The sector must halve its emissions before 2030 and emit absolute zero emissions by 2050 at the very latest to have a good chance of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees.
  • The sector also produces up to 15% of the world’s manufactured sulfur oxide and nitrous oxide emissions, which disproportionately impact low income communities of color living near ports. 
  • As a result, shipping emissions are linked to an estimated 6.4 million global childhood asthma cases and 260,000 premature deaths annually. 

Some significant steps towards decarbonizing shipping were taken at the COP26 Climate Summit, including signing of the Dhaka-Glasgow Declaration, the Clydebank Declaration, and the Declaration on Zero Emission Shipping by 2050.

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