Shipping industry highlights ‘urgent need’ for speed limits

Efforts to reduce the environmental impact of shipping should begin with mandatory speed restrictions for all commercial ships. That is the message from more than 100 maritime companies and nine NGOs, which have written to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) calling for it to regulate speed speeds.

Shipping has traditionally been a cheap but environmentally damaging means of freight transport. Last year the IMO agreed on an initial strategy to reduce greenhouse gases from shipping, leaving it until this year to discuss specific measures to achieve these reductions. Between 2008 and 2012 shipping’s emissions fell as ships reduced speeds – a practice that became known as ‘slow steaming’ – in response to the global economic downturn. But recent evidence suggests speeds are creeping up and emissions rising again.

In an open letter to IMO member states in the run-up to a meeting of the IMO’s environment committee this month, more than 100 chief executives in the maritime sector joined with nine NGOs (including T&E) to stress ‘the urgent need’ for shipping to cut its contribution to climate change. The letter said: ‘As the initial step we express our strong support for the IMO implementing mandatory regulation of global ship speeds differentiated across ship type and size categories.’

T&E’s shipping policy manager Faig Abbasov said: ‘Cutting speeds is the easiest thing for the industry to do in the immediate future – no need to change ships or port infrastructure. And it’s important, because if shipping keeps on emitting without any control, it will exhaust the sector’s carbon budget before zero carbon fuels become available. It would also mean that the sector will have to decarbonise much earlier than 2050, making the transition process very disruptive.’

According to figures quoted by the Financial Times, container ships with a capacity of between 12,000 and 14,500 containers tonnes (TEU) had an average sailing speed in 2015 of 16 knots, down from 20.6 knots in 2007. The largest container ships – of 14,500 TEU or more – actually sped up from 15 knots to almost 17 knots between 2012 and 2015, according to the ICCT’s greenhouse gas inventory. This increases their emissions, which the letter warns against. The letter to the IMO does not specify a fixed figure or percentage reduction, instead saying: ‘Our preference would be to set maximum annual average speeds for container ships, and maximum absolute speeds for the remaining ship types, which take account of minimum speed requirements. Such a regulation should be implemented as soon as possible.’

The meeting of the IMO’s environment committee follows the publication of a report that concludes only speed limits and other energy efficiency measures can achieve the goal of a 40% reduction in shipping emissions by 2030. The report, by the Dutch consultancy CE Delft for the European Commission, says technical measures or measures that remove market barriers will not, on their own, improve carbon intensity sufficiently. Faig Abbasov added: ‘It’s clear we need speed limits now, then efficiency improvements as a second step.’