Decision-time for global shipping industry grappling with its decarbonization plans

Posted on June, 30 2023

In the words of UN Secretary General, António Guterres: “The IMO has a historic opportunity to adopt a revised strategy… that clearly states: the future is zero-emission shipping by 2050 across the board - without leaving any country or trading route behind.”

By Mark Lutes, WWF Senior Advisor on Global Climate Policy

Next week, governments will gather at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) headquarters in London to agree on its revised greenhouse gas strategy for the global shipping sector. At the center of this strategy is the medium and long term emissions reduction targets for the shipping sector and measures to achieve them.


The global maritime transport sector is responsible for around 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climatic disruptions all over the world. 


Its Marine Environment Protection Committee will update its 2018 Initial GHG Strategy, which proposed reducing emissions by only 50% by 2050. This is now universally recognized as inadequate. 


Ambitious emissions reduction targets needed in global shipping sector

The main task of the meeting is to update the targets in the Initial GHG strategy, and advance towards agreement to meet the agreed targets.


The options on the table during the previous week’s Intersessional Working Group discussions present a clear choice between putting a credible 1.5℃ compatible pathway for the shipping sector, or a vague mid-century net-zero target with no interim targets to ensure the sector is on track to phasing out emissions.


The high-ambition 1.5℃ pathway includes a clear statement of achieving zero emissions by 2050 at the latest (or “net zero” while excluding out-of-sector offsets), with clear interim targets for 2030 and 2040. The 1.5℃ compatible interim targets include those proposed by the Science Based Targets Initiative in their maritime sector guidance. WWF submitted this to the IMO, and it has been supported by many countries. It calls for 36% reductions by 2030, and 96% reduction by 2040.


Weak options on the table 

But much weaker options are on the table, including a vague goal of reaching net zero “around mid-century”, and perhaps not even ruling out offsets from outside the shipping sector, and with no interim absolute emissions reduction targets.


This would be exactly the kind of “net-zero greenwashing” that the UN Secretary General’s Expert Group on Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities warned against. They made it clear that credible net zero claims require interim targets including for 2030 aligned with the net zero target, along with a clear transition plan to implement the targets.


Implementation plans needed

Next week’s meeting must also decide on a set of measures to implement these targets.


The measures include a fuel standard that requires zero or near-carbon fuels to be scaled up rapidly, as well as an economic measure that puts a price on carbon emissions to further incentivize rapid decarbonization. This could be in the form of a carbon levy or other pricing mechanism that can generate revenue to help ensure a just transition by supporting countries that will be disproportionately impacted by rising costs of transport, including small islands and least developed countries. 


Revenue could also be used to finance climate resilient port infrastructure and production of zero emission fuel, as perhaps also responding to climate impacts beyond the shipping sector, such as for the Loss and Damage fund being created under the UN climate convention. 


Leadership opportunity rests on shoulders of decision-makers at IMO meeting

The IMO and the global shipping sector has a chance to demonstrate true leadership in the global race to zero emissions. An outcome that sets out a credible decarbonization pathway will not only send the right signal to alternative fuel producers, shipbuilders, wind propulsion suppliers and the entire shipping energy system that the demand will be there to drive billions of investments in zero carbon solutions. 


It will also send a signal to other sectors that are still sleepwalking through the climate crisis that the time has come for serious action.


NOTE: See the WWF Arctic Program’s blog here for information about other issues being discussed at this meeting.

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