by Tanguy Tomes7 minute read
What do the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement have in common? Aside from both being remarkable examples of global co-operation that seek to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, there’s also something more subtle: both treaties require abatement targets to be set only with respect to territorial emissions.
As defined by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), territorial emissions are those “taking place within national territory and offshore areas over which [a] country has jurisdiction.” This may seem like a mere accounting technicality, but it has some problematic implications. For one thing, the definition allows outsourcing from any given country to be sold as genuine decarbonisation. But there is a bigger problem: setting targets solely for territorial emissions ignores all emissions from the international transport sector.
In some cases, the scale of this omission is considerable. Calculating on the basis of domestic sales of international transport fuels, the UK’s international transport emissions are equivalent to around 10% of the territorial total; but in some countries the figure is higher than 300%. While the emissions associated with those fuel sales are part of what each country reports to the United Nations, responsibility for reducing them falls outside of domestic responsibility.
So, in the regulatory chasm created by these treaties, who, if anyone, is left to take responsibility for emissions from international transport? What progress is being made to bring these emissions down, and what more needs to be done? In the grand scheme of things, does it even matter?
The two sectors these questions relate to are shipping and aviation. So, in the first of a two-part series, let’s take to the seas and explore what’s afoot in the world of international marine navigation.
Worse things happen at sea
Greenhouse gases emitted from maritime traffic constitute over 3% of total global emissions. If we were to declare international shipping to be a nation, it would take a spot well inside the top ten highest-emitting countries. But increasing globalisation means that this total is far from static: seaborne trade has been consistently increasing since the 1980s, with no signs of slowing. In 2014, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) projected that emissions from maritime traffic in 2050 could be up to 250% higher than they were in 2012.
As the rest of the world makes efforts to cut emissions, by then maritime navigation could be responsible for 17% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Given the scale and urgency of the challenge of climate change, it is critical that our carbon accounting system and the policies it engenders don’t let any emissions, never mind 17% of them, slip through the net.
Running a tight ship
There are reasons for optimism. As with all transport modes, innovation based on alternative fuels will revolutionise shipping. In Norway, electric ferries are already in routine operation, although the equivalent container ship may be a little further from maturity. Liquefied natural gas can today provide a more marketable solution for even the largest container ships, but offers limited emissions savings when compared to other alternatives to existing fuels. Hydrogen, ammonia, electricity and others are all under development. The sheer diversity of these solutions is in itself reassuring.
However, container ships have a lifetime of 25 years or more. Even if all new ships from today were zero-carbon, the existing fleet would continue to emit for another generation, seriously hindering efforts to tackle climate change at the required scale. Thankfully, the range of retrofitted interventions available to the ships already in service is considerable. For example, installing rotor sails to harness the wind through the Magnus effect can save upwards of 5% on fuel consumption, as well as looking enjoyably futuristic. However, a variety of low-tech changes are the most realistic prospects for impact in the short-term.
There are numerous well-documented and straightforward efficiency improvements that can be made. Many are already cost-effective, ranging from the technological (e.g. bulbous bow extensions, dual-propeller retrofits, low-friction hull coatings) to the operational. In a particularly satisfying example of the latter, Maersk – the largest container shipping company in the world – achieved fuel (and emissions) savings of 30% just by slowing their ships down a little!
All in all, it appears that a lot can be done to decarbonise international shipping. Indeed, the International Transport Forum (ITF) has said that:
“maximum deployment of currently known technologies could make it possible to reach almost complete decarbonisation of maritime shipping by 2035.”
Why then, are emissions set to rise so starkly? Why then, are the IMO’s emissions projections so scary?
Setting the map and compass
Ships tend to run on heavy, dirty bunker oil – one of the cheapest fractions of crude oil. Consequently, there is little financial incentive for fuel efficiency. In fact, Maersk’s slow-speed discovery only arose because of an unexpected (and unsustained) spike in oil prices. Today’s fleet, although profitable, is heavy, bulky and inefficient, and this situation will not be remedied without regulatory intervention.
But remember that no one nation is responsible for making this happen. Instead, the Kyoto Protocol assigned the IMO the task. Going into the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24), one of the IMO’s two objectives was to:
“In all communications seek to make clear that, as its track record to date so clearly demonstrates, [emphasis added] IMO is the appropriate international body to continue work to address greenhouse gas emissions from ships engaged in international trade.”
So, how does the IMO’s track record shape up?
It took more than 20 years from the signing of the Kyoto Protocol for a mitigation target to finally be introduced last year, aiming for cuts of “at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008.” The measures and mechanisms to be used to achieve this are yet to be determined. Whilst a target is much needed, contrast its ambition first against the improvement needed to meet the goals of the IPCC’s 1.5 °C report and then – perhaps more tellingly – against the “almost complete decarbonisation” deemed attainable by the ITF (see the chart below).
Needing a sea change
Potential measures to decarbonise international shipping are numerous and varied but while fuel remains cheap there is little incentive for profitable shipping companies to invest in them. Left alone, maritime emissions will act as a drag on the rate at which global energy use is decarbonised. Policy intervention seems, therefore, essential.
Unfortunately, responsibility for action lies with the IMO, a body that seems reluctant to impose market-based measures on its members. It suffers from chronic governance and transparency issues, shows little appreciation of the gravity of its responsibility, and has seen its targets blown out of the water by companies it’s meant to be regulating. So do not congratulate the IMO on their “track record” and do not “welcome” their new target. Instead, demand more.
Demand that the IMO target be upgraded in line with the urgency required and, importantly, the potential of existing technologies. Demand that this be enforced through an international price on maritime fuels. This would be effective at mitigating emissions, straightforward to administer, and deliver proceeds that could finance carbon mitigation in developing countries through the Green Climate Fund .
There is room for national action, too. Accountability is crucial and yet shipping was the focus of only one side-event at last year’s COP24. At COP25, nations need to file a resolution demanding greater transparency and ambition from the IMO – or else have it stripped of its climate responsibility. In the interim, a lack of international regulation need not preclude enactment of domestic policy. Modulated border charges favouring cleaner and greener ships would benefit not only the climate but also the thousands of citizens dying prematurely each year as a result of maritime air pollution. The UK has expressed lofty aspirations in its new maritime strategy; but currently submits its resolutions to the COP as part of an overall EU submission. Post-Brexit, it may be easier for the UK to lead the charge on both fronts.
The decarbonisation of international shipping could and must be rapidly accelerated. All that is lacking is a vehicle with the sufficient drive. If the IMO can’t get into gear, it must get out of the way. Otherwise, we risk letting emissions from international shipping sail away across the horizon.
Featured image: Carschten (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE), via Wikimedia Commons