Speed makes headlines both inside and outside IMO

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 17 May 2019


Ahead of this week’s 74th meeting of IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 74) there was some excitement over reported plans to set speed limits for ships. It was due to be raised during the meeting in the wake of discussions during the fifth meeting of the Intersessional Working Group on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships (ISWG-GHG 5) that took place last week (7-10 May).

The UK Chamber of Shipping spoke out ahead of that meeting, saying that slow steaming will actually increase carbon emissions, yet on 30 April a group of 120 shipping companies had published an open letter to IMO member states supporting mandatory speed measures to reduce shipping emissions.


Speed is an easy concept to grasp and both ISWG-GHG 5 and MEPC 74 attracted environmental protesters making that point. Delegates arriving at the start of MEPC 74 were met by protesters rearranging deckchairs on a metaphorical Titanic, with one placard simply saying ‘Ships slow down’.

ISWG-GHG 5 delegates had been presented with paper boats bearing similar sentiments made by schoolchildren on behalf of the UK Student Climate Network, one of whose members, 17-year-old Noga Levy-Rapoport, had been invited to attend the meeting by the NGO Clean Shipping Coalition. She told delegates that “urgent action is needed now to reduce emissions; reducing shipping speeds does that.”

One paper in particular at ISWG-GHG 5 had attracted attention: ISWG-GHG 5/4/11, submitted by France. Unfortunately, unlike submissions to other meetings, those made to working groups are not currently routinely made public via the IMODOCS website, despite the IMO Council’s spirit of openness declared in July last year.

Nonetheless, ShipInsight has seen a copy of France’s paper, which was one of a number that proposed short-term measures to tackle GHG emissions. It set out – as its executive summary explained – “a two-step approach consisting of regulating ships’ speed by sectors as soon as possible and, in a second run, adopting a global goal-based measure assigning to fleets an annual emission cap based on the emissions of each ship.” It is not a new idea; speed regulation is often cited as a potential measure to address GHG emissions, the submission went on to say.

One recent study that includes an assessment of speed reduction options, among others, was published on 1 May by UK consultancy UMAS and Dutch consultant CE Delft on behalf of the European Commission. “If a ship lowers its speed, the ship's energy consumption decreases more than proportionally,” it notes, even “when taking into account that more ships are required to provide the same amount of transport work.”

ShipInsight did not attend ISWG-GHG 5 and the French delegation at MEPC 74 declined our request to discuss the reaction to its proposal at that meeting or the current status of its speed-related proposal, but one source who did attend last week’s meeting said that, apart from other EU states, regulating for speed reductions had received limited support. This source said that France, while not backing away from its speed-regulation proposal, had responded by emphasising its submission’s second theme of goal-based standards.

That was reflected in France’s comments to MEPC 74 on Wednesday, when it made no mention of speed during discussion on the working group’s report to the committee. Instead, it told the meeting that it was keen to see short term measures adopted as quickly as possible and said that a combination of technical prescriptive measures that would change the operational management of ships is necessary in the short term.

Most non-EU states at last week’s meeting preferred ‘speed optimisation’ rather than reduction, our source said, which would require some form of goal-based arrangement. That, too, was reflected in discussion when the working group’s report was discussed on Wednesday at MEPC 74.

But opposition to reducing speed was not based only on whether it was an effective emission-reducing measure: for some remote countries – especially those that export perishable cargoes – reducing speed would have an adverse impact on trade, one delegation said.

A working group on reducing GHG emissions was also established during MEPC 74, with one of its tasks to consider and prioritise a range of short-term measures to reduce GHG for shipping that had been proposed to the meeting, which should come into effect by 2023 if the short-term target of reducing emissions by 40% by 2030 is to be met, the chairman reminded the meeting.

Based on the discussion, he said that any such measures should be practical, implementable, verifiable, balanced and global. He also noted proposals that some delegations had suggested: that they should be mandatory, through MARPOL Annex VI, and be goal-based. Some had also suggested that existing ships be brought within their scope in some way.

As for speed, “some prefer reduction, others prefer optimisation,” he said, but did not express a preference between them.

That working group is expected to report back to the plenary session on Friday (17 May).

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