Failure is not disaster: IMO’s troubled efforts to finalize GHG measures
Thomas Timlen, Singapore-based analyst, writer and eyewitness to numerous debates at the International Maritime Organization, reflects on what the organization’s history says about the prospects for effective climate change regulation.
As another critical meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) nears Thursday, feelings are mixed as to whether the outcome will promote or fail a global consensus, leaving the industry with a set. global regulations to follow or creating variations on a theme that vessel operators will have to juggle as they move from one jurisdiction to another, respectively.
The barometer with the floating needle was wired to the IMO Intersessional Working Group on Reducing GHG Emissions from Ships (ISWG-GHG 8) which met during the last week of May. How well this discussion went depends on who you ask.
The IMO document on ISWG-GHG 8 touts participants’ agreement to a set of draft guidelines to support mandatory measures to reduce the carbon intensity of all ships, measures which had already been approved by the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) in November 2020 and are expected to be adopted when the MEPC meets at its next session on June 10-17.
Any failure by the IMO to deal with emissions from the merchant fleet will be dealt with unilaterally or multilaterally.
There is no mention of a deadlock among the participants that was reported by Splash, a disagreement that led 27 IMO member states, including the United States and several Pacific island countries and the EU, to refuse to vote on a package of proposed GHG reductions and instead demanded action more ambitious carbon intensity reductions.
Splash was not alone in reporting difficulties to ISWG-GHG 8. Bureau Veritas painted a much more dramatic picture with its own summary of the good news and bad news, noting that while progress had been made on the details technical, the “discussion on the reduction trajectory by 2030 gave rise to bitter debates and rather deep divisions appeared between Member States which do not share the same approaches to climate issues.
Bitter debates and deep divisions have a reputation for fostering polarization more often than consensus, but despite this panic would be premature given the recent history of maritime regulation – if the late 1980s can be regarded as recent.
Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, American politicians found themselves in a situation where the public demanded swift and targeted action. Knowing that following the IMO path of seeking an international consensus through the process of submitting proposals and subsequent lengthy debates would be far from quick, unilateral regulation was imposed on the oil industry, namely Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90). Having initially only the local impact of the ban on ships that had caused major spills to operate in Prince William Sound, the OPA90 subsequently led to the phasing out of single-hull tankers selling to the United States.
Frankly, IMO member states and the organization itself were less than happy with the United States’ decision to take the unilateral route, however, in practice there was little they could do while the industry was managing to cope.
A little over ten years later, with the OPA90 still fresh in the memory of IMO delegates, the specter of another unilateral regulatory regime arose when, in response to Al- attacks Qaeda in 2001, the United States passed the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 (MTSA). Like any other industry-specific regulatory body, IMO has also been tasked with developing a global regulatory regime to protect the maritime sector from terrorist manipulation. At the time, it was understood that if the IMO had not provided the International Ship and Port Facility Safety Code (ISPS) for global maritime safety, the United States would simply apply its own MTSA unilaterally. . Thus, the ISPS Code entered into force faster than most IMO regulations, just over two years after the start of related work.
Is today’s questionable progress at IMO on regulations to adequately deal with climate change cause for panic? Not necessarily. Given recent experiences with OPA90 and the ISPS code, as well as external factors such as a Dutch court ruling on May 27 that Shell must reduce its carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, it does not is not unreasonable to conclude that any failure of the IMO to adequately emissions from the merchant fleet will be met either unilaterally or multilaterally.
Observers who might balk at such a result by claiming that such a patchwork of regional regulations would be unmanageable need only look back at the similar challenges the industry faces with ballast water management systems. How might the different levels of invasive species eradication be addressed? In practice, the solution was simply to follow the most stringent regime, namely the requirements imposed by the United States. Adhere to US requirements and operators were ready to go in all regions, exceeding the requirements of non-US rules.
There is no doubt that the IMO and all delegations involved in the MEPC are well aware that if they fail to meet the global demand for climate-friendly shipping, the global merchant fleet will have to comply with a litany of national regulations. , some potentially dictated by court decisions. This is certainly not the desired outcome, but if the IMO cannot put in place an international regime to crack down on ship emissions, there are other players in the game who will, and most operators of ships will have no choice but to adhere to the strictest of them. .