Alex Kirby – Inaction on marine pollution faces challenge

Marine pollution from ships’ engines is adding significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, and is growing. But global pressure for change is growing too.

By Alex Kirby, former BBC journalist and environment correspondent

Cross-posted from Climate News Network

 Image: By Tvabutzku1234, via Wikimedia Commons


The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the United Nations body responsible fo preventing  marine pollution by ships, starts a five-day meeting at its London HQ today. A glance at the agenda suggests it will need far longer than that to make much headway.

A 2014 IMO report found that, between 2007 and 2012, global shipping produced an annual average of 866 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent – 2.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions over that period. Those emissions are expected to grow between 50 and 250% by 2050.

A European Parliament report in 2015 said shipping could account for as much as 17% of global carbon emissions by 2050. That year the Parliament outlined plans for the maritime industry to be included in the European Union’s Emissions Trading System, a cap-and-trade scheme aimed at tackling global warming.

So when the IMO’s marine environment protection committee, the MEPC, tackles one of the main items before it, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from ships, it will have its work cut out.

”International shipping is the backbone of our global trading system. But it can no longer be given a free pass on climate change”

One main reason is simple inertia, the inability – or perhaps unwillingness – of a global industry to contemplate new ways of doing things.

The European Environment Agency published a report in January on the impacts of both aviation and shipping on Europe’s environment. Neither sector was included in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

The EEA says bluntly that trying to improve the present approach will not work: “…incremental measures such as improving fuel efficiency to cut emissions will not be enough…to meet European greenhouse gas emissions and sustainability targets.”

What’s needed instead, says the EEA, is “a massive shift in innovation, consumer behaviour and the take-up of more ambitious green technologies to power aircraft and seafaring cargo ships.”

It acknowledges that both industries face “complex challenges” in reducing their environmental impacts and in many ways are locked into established ways of operating which can be difficult to change.

Tax breaks

For example, it says, past investments in conventional airport and seaport infrastructure can delay the introduction of more sustainable technologies and opportunities to encourage alternative cleaner transport like rail.

The long lifespan of aircraft and ships can also slow the pace of change, and the report says there is a lack of research on cleaner fuels for both aircraft and ships, let alone the costs involved in producing them.

Besides these obstacles to change, the EEA says both international aviation and shipping benefit from significant tax exemptions on fossil-based fuels, which can act as a further barrier.

The report says governments have a key role to play by supporting investment in research, product standards and subsidies for new emerging technologies.

Lifestyle choices

Citizens too should be involved, the EEA says: it wants more debate on sustainable travel and consumer behaviour, and says changes to lifestyles and transport habits can also help in the long term to reduce carbon emissions and other aviation and shipping impacts.

It notes that transport, including aviation and shipping, continues to be a significant source of air pollution.

But if inertia is delaying action on cleaning up global shipping, it doesn’t have to: there are practical solutions already available. As long ago as  2009 an IMO report said: “A significant potential for reduction of GHG [greenhouse gases] through technical and operational measures has been identified.

“Together, if implemented, these measures could increase efficiency and reduce the emissions rate by 25% to 75% below the current levels. Many of these measures appear to be cost-effective…”

Arctic risk

A particular issue of concern on the MEPC’s agenda is the continuing use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, where a spill or other accident could cause drastic pollution.

Both the use and the transport of the oil is banned in the Antarctic, and the IMO’s Polar Code recommends that the same rules should be applied to the Arctic as well.

The need to act is urgent, say those directly affected and the climate experts who support them. An article in the New York Times last week was written jointly by Hilda Heine, the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Christiana Figueres, formerly the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

They wrote: “International shipping is the backbone of our global trading system. But it can no longer be given a free pass on climate change…

“To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change across the globe, we cannot forget about international shipping. The world needs to take notice.”


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