MEPC 72 GHG deal requires more than ambition

In the run in to MEPC 72 the meeting of the Intersessionary Working Group on Greenhouse Gases was not able to come to agreement on a future strategy leaving a lot of gloomy voices warning of regional regulation as the likely outcome.

Whilst the EU was looking for a 70% reduction in CO2 at least, the Marshall Islands was apparently looking at more than that and if some countries felt that 50% was being realistic, others thought that decidedly not the case. In the event it seems that it was the 50% argument that has won the day if there is actually any victory at all.

The IMO’s own view of the achievements at MEPC 72 – a 50% reduction by 2050 compared to 2008 – was that it has adopted an initial strategy on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from ships, setting out a vision to reduce GHG emissions from international shipping and phase them out, as soon as possible in this century.

More specifically, under the identified “levels of ambition”, the initial strategy envisages for the first time a reduction in total GHG emissions from international shipping which, it says, should peak as soon as possible and to reduce the total annual GHG emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008, while, at the same time, pursuing efforts towards phasing them out entirely. The strategy includes a specific reference to “a pathway of CO2 emissions reduction consistent with the Paris Agreement temperature goals”.

The initial strategy represents a framework for Member States, setting out the future vision for international shipping, the levels of ambition to reduce GHG emissions and guiding principles; and includes candidate short-, mid- and long-term further measures with possible timelines and their impacts on States. The strategy also identifies barriers and supportive measures including capacity building, technical cooperation and research and development

According to the “Roadmap” approved by IMO Member States in 2016, the initial strategy is due to be revised by 2023. The initial programme will be worked on immediately and the first report made to MEPC 73 in October this year.

The achievement of MEPC 72 does need to be put in context

The EEDI regulations already require most ship types to be at least 30% more efficient by 2025 in terms of CO2 production per tonne/mile and that would account for a good proportion of the reduced carbon dioxide output from shipping. A new Phase 4 of the EEDI has been identified as a possibility with a further 10% reduction in 2030 bringing the desired 50% by 2050 within range.

Meeting the existing targets has not been the easiest of tasks. Although efficiencies have been found sometimes the means have not been without unintended effects. As an example, some experts attribute the increase in tailshaft failures to combinations of slower revving ultra-long stroke engines and larger and heavier propellers both of which were aimed at meeting EEDI rules.

It is very likely that some of the reduction of carbon intensity under EEDI will come as a result of switching to LNG as a fuel. LNG has a lower carbon content than fuel oil so produces less CO2. However, LNG is not the whole answer as the main constituent methane is itself a greenhouse gas and the issue of methane slip is one already identified by the IMO in its earlier strategy as needing attention. So a switch to gas, while making EEDI targets easier to achieve may not have as great an effect on the 50% 2050 target.

Other potential candidates for short term inclusion are speed reduction measures and the establishment of an existing fleet improvement programme. The former has already been given the backing of environmentalists while being attacked by commercial interests – shippers and cargo interests as well as shipowners; and the second might be a step to far for owners already needing to meet the ballast water convention deadlines and the 2020 cap on SOx over the next two to five years.

Slow steaming will create a demand for more ships and more crew unless unmanned ships become commonplace. Building the additional ships – manned or otherwise – will by itself create more GHG because of the power needed for making steel and construction. The effect of more slower ships on ports should not be overlooked either. Although the total volume of cargo may not alter, the unproductive time taken in moving in the port and number s of tugs needed will increase.

Shipping’s actual contribution to greenhouse gases and especially CO2 has actually declined in recent years despite a fairly large upturn in world trade. Some of that may be due to reduced offshore activity but most is very probably due to improved design of ships a large number of which were already being implemented before the advent of EEDI. The MRV regimes of the IMO and the EU will not generate any data for some time but when they do, the size of the problem may equally well prove to be smaller than larger than initially anticipated.

It is beyond that time that problems with the ambition of 50% or more will begin to show. The IMO’s candidate measures for between 2023 and 2030 include implementing effective uptake of alternative low-carbon and zero-carbon fuels, more operational energy efficiency measures and new/innovative emission reduction mechanism(s), possibly including Market-based Measures (MBMs), to incentivise GHG emission reduction.

There are some alternative fuels it is true, but their availability in sufficient quantities has not been properly explored and neither has the ability of ships and crews to make use of them. In many instances, the IMO regulations themselves do not currently cover the safe use of some such fuels and this will require appropriate input from the technical organisations in shipping as well as other bodies. More importantly, the equipment and system makers will need to develop suitable products and be sure of a large enough market to invest in the R&D needed.

The reaction of shipping bodies was generally accepting and maybe even welcoming but there are questions to be answered. In a statement BIMCO General Secretary, Lars Robert Pedersen called the target ambitious, but not impossible: “In BIMCO we believe that the industry can deliver on this target – even if we don’t exactly know how, yet,” he said. “Now we have to focus on the mid-to-long term. We have to find the technology and procedures that will drive us towards zero GHG emissions,” he added.

Thus far the only candidates as the main source of power are a handful of alternative fuels such as LNG, methanol and ethane which are not entirely emission free, hydrogen which presents problems in manufacture and storage as well as use on board ships and fuel cells which have promised much and delivered very little to date. Wind power may prove to be a small component as may batteries where the power to charge them can be delivered by clean means. Nuclear power is another possible option but one which will find hard to achieve acceptance.

Developing new equipment is beyond the expertise and involvement of shipowners and if the ballast water conventions and exhaust regulations of MARPOL Annex VI have done nothing more it has been to demonstrate that regulation in advance of suitable technology is a recipe for disaster. What happens in 2020 when the global sulphur cap comes in will either reinforce that view or go some way to dispelling it.

Given that criticism of the EU’s stance on regulating in advance of the IMO and the need to find common ground for a level playing field is the industry mantra, an interesting aspect of MEPC 72 was from where opposition to adopting possible future controls was coming from. Saudi Arabia and Brazil along with Panama were chief among those opposing more controls on GHG but the US along with Saudi Arabia were reportedly the only dissenters on the final text. The US notoriously went its own way on ballast water and could arguably do so again on emission controls at least in its own domestic waters.

In the long run, the matter of ambitions and reality is yet to be decided. If the equipment makers cannot come up with the goods, then the demands of a world population for food and consumer products will mean that only minor changes to the status quo will be possible. But 2050 is over 30 years away and when it arrives virtually none of the ships float now or built in the next few years will still be operational. The next 15 to 20 years must therefore see a rate of technology advancement that would be unprecedented in maritime history. It is a challenge that may or may not be winnable.