Sea change in air quality

Even when experience tells you otherwise, progress is always possible. That’s the lesson from T&E’s 2016 sustainable shipping campaign. While efforts to tackle the sector’s climate emissions dragged on throughout the year, the International Maritime Organisation brokered a groundbreaking global deal on sulphur emissions that will prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths globally.

The sulphur content of ship heavy fuel oil (HFO) is up to 3,500 times higher than today’s European diesel standards. The IMO unanimously agreed in 2008 that from 2020 marine fuel sulphur should be capped at 0.5%. But there was an escape clause: if an IMO review in 2018 found there would be insufficient compliant fuel available in 2020, then implementation would slip to 2025. T&E got itself on the IMO review committee and we were represented by an eminent researcher. That sparked a chain of events leading to the review finding that sufficient compliant fuel would indeed be available. Industry cried foul, releasing its own report, but the matter was put beyond doubt by a health study that T&E and NGO Seas At Risk helped bring about. 2020 implementation would prevent at least 200,000 premature deaths globally from diseases such as lung cancer and heart disease triggered by SOx pollution, according to the research. The Guardian reported the avoided deaths would mainly be in coastal communities in the developing world that barely benefit from global trade. Under this public scrutiny, the IMO meeting in October stuck with the 2020 deadline – showing that sometimes the right causes prevail.

“‘It's the first in the maritime industry history that standards on air pollution will have a real impact,” said Bill Hemmings from NGO Transport & Environment. Le Monde, 27 October 2016

On climate, shipping, as with aviation, infamously escaped explicit mention in the Paris Agreement. Then, seven months later, the European Commission published its Low Emissions Mobility Strategy, which was devoid of EU ambition on cutting emissions from shipping. T&E, through the Clean Shipping Coalition, began to pile on the pressure, commissioning a joint study with Seas at Risk showing that the IMO’s 2013 Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) for new ships was flawed; the baseline was weak, 10 years out of date and ships of all categories were outdoing the standard by embarrassingly large amounts. A second joint study found that new ships built since 2013 subject to the EEDI had performed much the same as those not covered. Moreover it was clear to everyone that there had been no uptake of new technologies.

In April the IMO’s environment committee meeting made some progress towards an action plan on CO2 but final agreement was scuppered by China and the other BRICS. It became increasingly clear to T&E that the IMO would only respond to pressure. In Brussels the European Parliament was preparing to review the EU emissions trading system. T&E fostered discussion about how regional action could help the EU meet its 2030 targets as well as pressure the international process. An independent study we commissioned found that without action, the growth in emissions from shipping and aviation would undo nearly half (43%) of the emission reductions expected from road transport through to 2030. Shipping CO2 emissions could be reduced cumulatively by 80 million tonnes by 2030 – the total annual emissions of Austria – if the sector was included in the ETS.

At the IMO’s October 2016 meeting, agreement was finally reached on a renewed greenhouse gas work plan. It would span seven years. Firstly to collect data. Then examine it. Then discuss potential consequences but without any commitment whatsoever to take action at the end. All this 20 years after the Kyoto Protocol first tasked the IMO with action. For good measure the committee abandoned its review of ship efficiency targets until 2018 at the earliest.

T&E was not unprepared. Amendments to the EU ETS review were developed to include shipping in the ETS via a Maritime Climate Fund if action at the IMO didn’t materialise.

Hard work fostered cross-party support and the prospect of shipping undermining climate action in road transport was enough for EU lawmakers to vote in December to include shipping in a reformed EU ETS. The signal to the IMO was clear. A further failure after the seven-year plan would result in EU action.

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