CO2 declaration could signal bitter battles at IMO

There has been a fair amount of reporting of the Tony de Brum declaration signed last week by 35 countries in Paris at the One Planet Summit organised by the French government to commemorate the UNFCCC Paris Agreement of 2015.

To some NGO’s this is a warning shot to the IMO that if no target is imposed on shipping then the wider world will need to take appropriate action. However, things are not so simple as they might seem.

The declaration itself states that the IMO’s strategy ‘must not compromise the achievement of climate objectives by creating distortions of competition; therefore its provisions should equally apply to all ships regardless of their flag’.

However, it then goes on to say that ‘the impacts of measures on States, in particular on LDCs and SIDS, and their specific needs, have to be studied in advance and that disproportionate impacts on specific States should be addressed’.

It is extremely hard to reconcile these two statements except perhaps by allowing dispensation to ships flagged by or trading to and from the states identified – thus the continuation of the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ contained in many UN documents.

The declaration was signed by: Belgium, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Comoros, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

It is interesting to note that no less than 24 of these are EU member states with only Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovakia absent from the full 28. Of the remaining 11 signatories, it should come as no surprise that Marshall Islands is included since the declaration is named after a former minister and climate ambassador of the country.

The Marshall Islands flag is the third largest in the world in terms of gross tonnage according to the latest UNCTAD statistics on the world commercial fleet with 11.634% of the total world fleet. The other ten non-EU states are much smaller with Canada’s 0.161% being the largest and several of the others not even registering above zero. In fact the total of the 35 signatories amounts to a little over 33% of the world fleet.

Those statistics are indicative of the arguments that might come when the IMO begins debating the issue of decarbonisation in April next year at MEPC72.

It would seem that the EU which has dominated the direction of the agenda in recent years and which is looking to impose its own regulations on shipping from 2023 if the IMO does not make progress, is not in the strongest of positions. While European-based shipowners may still control much of the world fleet, they have long since abandoned the concept of national flags and it would seem that the 28 EU member states plus Norway account for less than a quarter of the world fleet by gross tonnage.

Once, flagging out would have been purely for financial reasons but today it is more about avoiding the ever more onerous EU regulation of shipping that imposes restrictions on ships that other national flags let alone the open registers do not. Even Norway which is on the fringes of the EU has seen much of its fleet disappear to places such as Singapore.

Shipping’s contribution to atmospheric CO2 levels is currently around 2.3% of all man-made CO2 emissions but these themselves only amount to about 2 – 3 % of all CO2 with around 98% being quite natural. On that basis shipping is responsible for less than 0.05% of all CO2 emissions and, as the Tony de Brum declaration recognises, is an essential industry for almost all nations regardless of the developmental status.

The IMO and the EU need to recognise that the contribution of shipping to both feeding the world and enabling its economic development is perhaps an issue that must be considered. The EU and those trade bodies that talk of the level playing field must also recognise that if those countries that did not sign the recent declaration did not do so because they did not agree with it, then it is the EU that is out of step with most of the rest world.