Is a dangerous complacency taking hold in shipping over climate goals?

Climate, economic stability and the Paris Agreement are all at stake in London shipping talks this week.

As UN talks on cutting greenhouse gases from the shipping industry open in London, there are concerns that a dangerous complacency is taking hold in the sector. 

The main point of the meeting - which starts this week at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in London - is to define a response from the international shipping sector to the Paris Agreement. 

This is a commitment by all the world’s countries to reduce GHG emissions in order to avoid dangerous climate change – defined in the agreement as stabilising temperature rise well below 2C and pursuing efforts to limit to 1.5C.

Temperatures have already exceeded 1C, there is very little time now remaining to avoid risks which are existential for many countries, but damaging to all of global society. 

One of the central items of debate at IMO will be the discussion of its CO2 target or “level of ambition”. For this there are several proposals being considered. Only one of the proposals is close to being in line with the rate of GHG reduction that is necessary to achieve the Paris temperature goals – the 70-100 percent absolute reduction of emissions by 2050 (on 2008 levels) proposed by a collection of European and Pacific countries. 

Worryingly for the negotiations, this proposal is also the highest level of ambition, and therefore seen as an extreme position. Many argue against it with logic such as “it’s too hard, we might not have the technology, it will cost too much, the sector’s too important, the sector is already very energy efficient”. 

Of course shipping is important, but so is energy production to provide heat and power, so is food production, so is cement and steel production to provide shelter etc. To avoid dangerous climate change all of these sectors in both developed and developing countries will need to spend the next three decades undergoing radical change until they have net zero GHG emissions. 

What is more, the evidence is now substantial that it is not too hard or costly for shipping to decarbonise. There are viable pathways for international shipping to transition from fossil to renewable energy and fuels (batteries, ammonia, hydrogen, biofuel) with negligible change in cost. This major change will take investment, cooperation and time but the sooner it starts the easier it will be.  

But this is more than just about the science and the evidence. The arguments that shipping does not need to align with Paris miss a key point: climate change is a zero sum game, the evidence of the dangerous impacts we are now gambling with will intensify with time. 

We already know something about these risks, but as the storms, flooding, heat related deaths, coral bleaching, migration get worse, as other sectors reduce to net zero (as many have already started doing), pressure will dramatically increase on any sector not perceived to be doing all it can. 

The arguments that shipping does not need to align with Paris miss a key point: climate change is a zero sum game, the evidence of the dangerous impacts we are now gambling with will intensify with time. 

This therefore highlights that agreeing too low a target now does not just risk dangerous climate change, it risks damage to international shipping itself. 

One example of such a target proposal has been made by Japan which suggests a 50 per cent reduction in CO2 by 2060. The headline sounds impressive, but under such a proposal and even assuming the more moderate temp goal of “well below 2C”, shipping’s share of GHG would quadruple over the next 20 years. It would become 14 per cent of total net emissions (equivalent to the United States now) by 2050, and in 2060 when the global economy had reached net zero shipping would need to justify why it still needed to produce 0.5 giga-tonnes of CO2 per year (similar to the current emissions of Canada). 

Crucially, this target also removes any hope of stabilising temperatures at the 1.5C limit that the Paris Agreement countries committed to pursue efforts for and which is a crucial ‘guardrail’ for many countries. 

If the Japanese target or similar is the outcome chosen at the IMO next week, international shipping would constrain itself to one of two options: 

1.    To spend the next three decades justifying why it was special and deserved a growing share of a diminishing CO2 budget, and why other sectors and countries needed to compensate for this growth

2.    To revise its target to a more dramatic rate of decarbonisation and earlier zero year. 

Neither of these two options is attractive. Option 1 would see the sector increasingly become a ‘pariah’ industry with potential risks to demand for its services. Option 2, given the normally long lifespan of shipping assets (measured in decades), could be hugely disruptive and induce high capital costs of rapid retrofit, premature scrapping, foreclosure for the unprepared etc. 

The only argument against this logic is to assume that we will not meet the Paris Agreement temperature goals - that international cooperation will break down, and that the onset of dangerous climate change is inevitable. The IMO is a UN agency just like the UN’s climate body. 

If the same states who in 2015 agreed to the Paris Agreement deploy an argument this week that they don’t believe that it will happen and therefore shipping does not need to decarbonise, then that very agreement’s credibility is at stake. 

Shipping has become a key test for the commitment underlying the Paris Agreement, and the IMO cannot ignore that this is being referred by many as “the climate deal of the year”. 

I believe we can do better, and can reach a deal that is in line with the Paris Agreement and that puts the shipping industry on a stable footing that would be good for employment and balance sheets, secures sustainable growth in world trade, and maintains the sector’s claim that it is the “greenest” way to move goods around the world. 

Laurence Tubiana, a former French ambassador to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is CEO of the European Climate Foundation and a professor at Sciences Po, Paris. This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org.

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