HomeLow carbon futureIf the UK lives up to what it says on shipping emissions, it could claim to be a climate leader

If the UK lives up to what it says on shipping emissions, it could claim to be a climate leader

This post is by Jonathan Hood, sustainable shipping manager at Transport and Environment UK.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN’s agency regulating international shipping, recently concluded crunch talks in London to agree a far reaching, global strategy to eliminate the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris Agreement means shipping emissions, which account for around three per cent of total global emissions, must halve by 2030 and be all but eliminated by 2040. However, the newly agreed IMO strategy falls well short of what is required. It contains only a net zero target by “close to” 2050, with voluntary emissions reduction ‘checkpoints’ along the way. Critically, the strategy is not aligned with the temperature objective of the Paris Agreement. On this basis, the IMO has failed.

This comes as no surprise. Any IMO strategy requires broad agreement among its 175 member countries. Reconciling those differences with the scale of the emissions reduction needed was always going to be an enormous challenge.

The UK isn’t yet following through on its words
In recent years, the UK has positioned itself as a thought leader at the IMO. Alongside the United States, Canada and a number of Pacific island states, the UK backed the only proposal put forward by IMO members that would have seen international shipping emissions decline on a pathway compatible with the Paris target. The UK deserves credit for this.

But the UK has not matched its words with deeds. For domestic shipping emissions, ie those from vessels in UK ports or travelling between them, which are not included in the IMO strategy, the UK has “no credible policies”, according to the Climate Change Committee. And, with the failure of the IMO, the UK’s real world efforts to decarbonise shipping amount to a lot of hot air.

This is a very serious problem. With no effective policies to reduce them, shipping emissions, which were nearly 20 per cent of all UK transport emissions in 2021, will put the UK at very real risk of breaching its own legally binding carbon budgets. If this happens, other sectors of the UK economy will need to reduce their emissions even further to compensate. Small wonder the Climate Change Committee reported that the UK has lost its leadership position on climate action.

The IMO is incapable of regulating international shipping emissions effectively. But, contrary to the claim of the UK and many others, the IMO is not actually responsible for doing so. It is a regulator, but not an exclusive one. The law of the sea already obliges all countries to combat vessel pollution, whilst the Paris Agreement requires signatories to implement “economy-wide emissions reductions”, which includes international shipping. Whilst states, including the UK, have largely sought to delegate responsibility for these emissions to the IMO, the legal emissions reduction obligation falls on member states, not the IMO.

Countries already have full rights under international law to impose conditions on ships entering their ports. This legal jurisdiction, called Port State Control, is the basis on which the EU has, independently of the IMO, already implemented regulations requiring ships to pay for their pollution and use lower emission fuels.

Pricing emissions and changing fuel are the answer
The UK must change course, and radically. Like the EU, it should take responsibility for all its shipping emissions by pricing them effectively and requiring all vessels calling at UK ports to use lower emission fuels. Using the Port State Control jurisdiction is nothing new to the UK: it forms the basis of the UK’s shipping monitoring regulation that applies to domestic and international vessels.

The benefits of this approach are clear. Over 80 per cent of the world’s shipping calls in at European, US and Chinese ports. If the UK, US and China add their own regional regulations to those of the EU (and two bills to end shipping pollution in the US were introduced in Congress earlier this year), most international shipping would be subject to effective climate regulation.

In the UK, binding measures to limit shipping emissions would provide a tremendous boost to the domestic clean maritime technology sector, which includes green hydrogen and wind power, whilst cutting reliance on fossil fuel imports. If the UK emissions trading scheme was expanded to include all UK shipping emissions, rather than the ten per cent currently proposed, it could generate nearly £2 billion a year. This revenue could contribute towards the costs of decarbonising the sector and pay for adaptation in climate vulnerable countries, upholding the principle of an equitable transition.

The UK shouldn’t turn its back on the IMO. A global, Paris-aligned framework to regulate shipping emissions is still the best option. But there is no time left for protracted negotiations. Deep and sustained emissions cuts are needed, now. As the chair of the Climate Change Committee has said, “the true test of leadership is delivery”. The UK must now join a coalition of willing countries and implement a national framework to regulate all its shipping emissions, as an incentive for regional and industry action. This must be clearly signposted in the revised Clean Maritime Plan later this year.

This would go some way to restoring the UK’s reputation as a climate leader, in deed as well as word.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.