UN text opens door for fresh talks on targets, carbon market for shipping, but obstacles remain

Published 18:11 on December 5, 2015  /  Last updated at 16:51 on December 6, 2015  / Stian Reklev /  Americas, Asia Pacific, China, Climate Talks, EU ETS, International, Shipping, South & Central

Text on how to deal with carbon emissions from international shipping has made it through to ministerial discussions at UNFCCC talks for the first time, creating hope that the Paris meeting could provide a signal that would revitalise high-level discussions about CO2 targets and market-based mechanisms for the sector.

Text on how to deal with carbon emissions from international shipping has made it through to ministerial discussions at UNFCCC talks for the first time, creating hope that the Paris meeting could provide a signal that would revitalise high-level discussions about CO2 targets and market-based mechanisms for the sector.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol placed the responsibility for dealing with emissions from international shipping and aviation respectively with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), but in UNFCCC meetings since, the issue has been so fraught that any language on it has been dropped from the draft texts before making their way to ministers.

In the 18 years since Kyoto, the IMO has yet to put in place a framework for cutting shipping CO2, and emissions from the sector are on track to increase by 50-250% over 2012 levels by mid-century unless curbs are introduced.

However, in the text handed over to the French presidency at the ongoing Paris talks on Saturday, one paragraph – although heavily bracketed – was left in:

“[Parties [shall][should][other] pursue the limitation or reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation and marine bunker fuels, working through the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization, respectively, with a view to agreeing concrete measures addressing these emissions, including developing procedures for incorporating emissions from international aviation and marine bunker fuels into low-emission development strategies.]”

John Maggs, a shipping and environment policy advisor with green group Seas At Risk, said this offered ministers the chance to send a strong signal to the IMO meeting next April that the industry must stop stalling and devise a concrete plan to reduce its swelling carbon footprint.

“If the text is improved it would be a huge encouragement, but even the current text is worth something,” he told Carbon Pulse on the sidelines of the Paris talks.

The main problem with the current text, Maggs said, was the word “limitation”, which might translate into only slowed growth for the sector’s emissions, rather than an absolute reduction.

He wanted ministers to tie the text on shipping and aviation to the long-term temperature goal in a final agreement.


Maggs spoke at a side event in Paris along with Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, who last month submitted a proposal to the UN calling for the UNFCCC to begin discussing an emissions target for shipping.

It’s time to introduce “an ambitious industry-wide emissions reduction target in line with the 1.5C target,” de Brum told the event.

The Marshall Islands has the world’s third biggest shipping registry, so de Brum’s efforts carry weight, although his similar proposal to the IMO in May ended with the discussion being put on hold until an unspecified point of time in the future.

“With a strong signal from Paris, I think two things will come back (on the agenda). The first is the Marshall Islands proposal for a target. Secondly, they would quite quickly dust off the previous discussions on a market-based mechanism,” Maggs told Carbon Pulse.

A market for the industry was discussed ahead of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, but was shelved afterwards and has not resurfaced since.

“The Danish shipping industry whole-heartedly supports a market,” Maria Bruun Skipper, a director with the Danish Ship-Owners Association, told the event.

She said her association was in favour of a bunker fuel levy that might allow companies beating their targets to sell offsets, or that revenue from the levy be channelled into a clean fund.  But it opposed an outright shipping ETS because she said participation would be to difficult to administer for the many small companies in the industry.


The EU earlier this year passed legislation to require ship owners using EU ports to measure, report and verify their annual GHG emissions from Jan. 2018, with more voices calling for the move to be a “stepping stone” to eventual CO2 targets for the industry.

But some negotiators, mainly from developing nations, said such measures might instead be a stumbling block for any efforts to implement a market-based mechanism for the sector.

In one of the Paris negotiating tracks, China this week said it was “greatly concerned” over the European plan, voicing support for a statement made previously by the IMO’s secretary general that “if such regional regulations would go beyond what IMO will adopt and if implemented on foreign ships, they would undermine the organization’s important role as the global standard setter for international shipping.”

Meanwhile, Argentina, with the backing of nearly 90 developing nations, added that “it should be taken into account that international maritime transport is only a modest contributor to climate change, while it is fundamental for trade and economic and social development.”

“We would also like to express our support for multilateral discussions, in opposition to unilateral measures. In this sense, we reiterate our concern about the approval by the EU of a unilateral measure on [MRV] of shipping emissions that undermines the spirit of multilateral cooperation and that is inconsistent with the principles and provisions of the Convention, in particular the principles of equity and CBDR,” it said.


However, even if measures aimed at managing shipping’s emissions are agreed in Paris, the road to an ambitious climate policy framework for the sector would likely be a long one.

Renewed efforts from small-island states – many of whom are significant shipping nations – to set a 1.5C target for global warming helps the process, but progress in the IMO is excruciatingly slow, partly because talks there are frequented by transport ministers who are less aware of the climate issue than the officials attending at UNFCCC talks, and partly because some nations – such as Saudi Arabia, Singapore, China and India – are uninterested in a deal.

Some industry groups, such as the influential International Chamber of Shipping, also lobby against climate efforts.

Tristan Smith, a lecturer at University College London and lead author of the Third IMO Greenhouse Gas Study, said studies showed that when factoring in the sector’s projected growth, shipping’s carbon intensity needs to be reduced by 80-90% below 2012 levels by 2050 if emissions are to be cut absolutely.

He added that strong policies, including an effective carbon price, were needed to make that happen.

“The organisations that have the power to lead don’t acknowledge the problem.”

Maggs agreed, saying shipping suffered from a “culture of exceptionalism” that needs to be dealt with.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch for individual sectors when it comes to dealing with climate change,” added Thomas Egebo, permanent secretary of state at Denmark’s Ministry of Energy, Utilities and Climate.

Part of the problem, observers said, is that many shipping nations hide behind the CBDR principle.

Around 70% of the world’s roughly 50,000 ships ships sail under the flags of nations defined in the UNFCCC as developing countries that have no obligations to cut emissions in the current UN framework.

But that might change after Paris, if delegates can agree a new way to define the differentiation of responsibilities between rich and poor nations.

By Stian Reklev – stian@carbon-pulse.com

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