IMO needed to improve shipping's environmental status

Editorial by João Vieira

Shipping is sometimes the forgotten means of transport. There seems to be a general assumption that it is generally environment-friendly, although that may be mainly because the contribution of ships to climate change, air and marine pollution has been outside public debate for many years. But there are signs that this may be changing, which could be good news for shipping, as people are starting to wake up to the environmental damage caused by maritime transport.

Sketch of some documents (default image for news

Studies making use of geographic marine activity data have estimated that about 70-80% of all ship emissions occur within 400 kilometres of land. Estimates put the amount of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted by ships at about 30% of land-based emissions. And these emissions are growing – the Commission believes emissions of SO2 and NOx from ships will exceed those of
land-based sources by 2020.

The reason this can happen is that there is very little policy control on maritime transport. Given its international character, any regulation has to be transnational, and the obvious body to do the regulating is the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). IMO’s most relevant policy tool to address ship emissions is the Marpol Annex VI, and it is due to review the annex this month, with a final decision to be taken in July.

IMO has then a great opportunity to show that it is serious about changing the environmental profile of shipping. It also has a slowly changing attitude in the industry towards regulation. Intertanko, an industry organisation, made a first move in proposing a mandatory shift from the use of Heavy Fuel Oil or bunker oil (a highly viscous unrefined residual oil with a very high sulphur content) to distillate, low-sulphur, fuels. This proposal has found many opponents, but it is a clear sign that many players are prepared to face major changes.

Given the urgency of the growing contribution of maritime transport to air pollution and the availability of cost-effective abatement measures, T&E has teamed up with a coalition of international NGOs to call for:

  • a reduction in NOx emission standards of about 90% for both existing and new ships, no later than 2015
  • reductions in SOx emissions of 70-90% by 2015
  • substantial reductions in particular matter, both through the side-effects of reducing NOx and SOx, but also through working on specific targets or PM in the Marpol Annex VI (to be adopted no later than 2009).

The EU could well play a significant role in whether the IMO seizes its opportunity to set shipping on a more en- vironmental course. Europe’s position to date has been that the EU should “negotiate within the framework of the IMO to strengthen current air emission standards”. But what if the revision of Marpol Annex VI is once again delayed or does not deliver the reductions urgently needed? That is where EU threats of unilateral action on shipping emissions are necessary. The EU must ensure its threats are not empty –
though hopefully the threats alone will be enough to make unilateral action unnecessary.

This news story is taken from the April 2007 edition of T&E Bulletin.