Shipping to halve carbon footprint by 2050 under first sector-wide climate strategy

Countries adopted a compromise emissions target for shipping at the International Maritime Organization on Friday, with further battles to come over how to put it into practice

Global shipping must at least halve its emissions by 2050, under a hard-fought international deal that for the first time sets the sector on course to shrink its carbon footprint.

The agreement reached by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on Friday is an initial step for one of the world’s biggest polluting industries. Over the next five years, negotiators are to develop a package of measures to fulfil the target, delivering a final strategy in 2023.

After a tense week of talks, with blocs of countries tussling over the level of ambition, negotiators stuck to a compromise forged the previous week.

Climate advocates expressed disappointment the target did not go further, saying full decarbonisation by 2050 was needed to align with the global warming limits in the Paris Agreement.

“Nevertheless, this deal provides the very clear policy signal that is needed for international shipping to begin to play its full part to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement,” Marshall Islands environment minister David Paul and Christiana Figueres, head of the Mission 2020 initiative on climate action, said in a joint statement Thursday evening. It “keeps alive” the possibility to meet the accord’s stretch 1.5C warming limit and to review the strategy in light of new science, they added.

Now the task is to decide how to meet those climate goals for shipping.

The initial strategy

The goal is to reduce maritime emissions at least 50% by 2050, from 2008 levels, while pursuing full decarbonisation in line with the Paris Agreement. The strategy also sets a target to reduce CO2 emissions relative to each tonne of cargo shipped by at least 40% by 2030 and pursue efforts towards 70% by 2050, and plans to review the IMO’s energy efficiency design rules with an eye to strengthening them.

Talks on implementing the targets are to be guided two principles: “common but differentiated responsibility” between rich and poor countries for tackling climate change, from the UN climate convention; and the IMO rule against discrimination between ships by the country where their flags are registered.

In a sign of battles to come, several countries registered concerns about the compromise. The US, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, India, Iran and the Philippines were among the strongest opponents of a cap on emissions – some arguing it’s premature and could harm the shipping industry, and others saying it would need adjustment before the strategy is finalised in 2023.

Another key battleground is how to divide responsibility between the world’s rich and poor, while respecting the IMO’s policy against discrimination between its 173 member countries. Russia, Canada and the US were among those warning this could be tricky.

The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, or CBDR, is a familiar battle line in international climate change negotiations. Developing countries argue the industrialised world should shoulder more work; developed countries including the US and Europeans say everyone needs to do as much as possible.

But drawing those divisions is complicated in the shipping sector, which largely operates – and emits – outside national boundaries.

“When it comes to the IMO, CBDR is very difficult to apply, frankly,” Figueres, former head of UN Climate Change, told journalists outside the IMO last Friday. It is not clear which country is responsible for a ship’s emissions: where the shipowner is based, where its flag is registered, where its cargo comes from or where it is going.

Figueres argued the principle should not become a “straightjacket” or let emerging economies off the hook. “Developed countries have a historic responsibility for their emissions. That is not disputed,” she said. “The Paris Agreement also looks into the future… in the future there is shared responsibility.”

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Billy Frank, Jr.’s Final Message Before Passing

 of the Nisqually Indian Tribe was the long-time Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. In this capacity, he “spoke for the salmon” on behalf of the 20 Treaty Indian Tribes in western Washington.

Billy Frank Jr. was a fighter for a healthy ecosystem right to the very end. On the morning of his passing, his last editorial was posted on his Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission blog “Being Frank.” In “Keep Big Oil Out of Grays Harbor,” he strongly backed the Quinault Nation’s stand against plans for three Bakken oil terminals in Hoquiam.

Here is the text of “Keep Big Oil Out of Grays Harbor, By Billy Frank, Jr. May 5th, 2014:

Our environment, health, safety and communities are at risk from decisions being made now to transport and export trainloads of coal and oil through western Washington.

If coal export terminals proposed for Cherry Point near Bellingham, and Longview on the Columbia River are approved, hundreds of trains and barges would run from Montana and Wyoming every day, spreading coal dust along the way. That same coal will continue to pollute our world when it is burned in China and other countries thousands of miles away.

Now that threat is joined by proposals to use mile-long crude oil trains to feed massive new oil terminals in Grays Harbor. Safety is a huge concern. Since 2008 nearly a dozen oil trains have been derailed in the U.S. In December, a fire burned for over 24 hours after a 106-car train carrying crude oil collided with a grain train in North Dakota. In July, an oil train accident killed 47 people and leaked an estimated 1.5 million gallons of oil in Quebec, Canada.

It’s clear that crude oil can be explosive and the tankers used to transport it by rail are simply unsafe. These oil trains are an accident waiting to happen to any town along the route from the oil fields of the Midwest to the shores of western Washington.

Plans for shipping crude oil from Grays Harbor also include dredging the Chehalis River estuary, which will damage habitat needed by fish, shellfish and birds. Large numbers of huge tanker ships moving in and out of the harbor would interfere with Indian and non-Indian fisheries and other vessel traffic.

The few jobs that the transport and export of coal and oil offer would come at the cost of catastrophic damage to our environment for years. We would have to live with that damage for many years. Everyone knows that oil and water don’t mix, and neither do oil and fish, oil and wildlife, or oil and just about everything else. It’s not a matter of whether spills will happen, it’s a matter of when.

Thankfully, the Quinault Indian Nation is taking a stand. “The history of oil spills provides ample, devastating evidence that there are no reasonable conditions under which these proposed terminal projects should proceed,” says my friend, Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation. “We oppose oil in Grays Harbor. This is a fight we can’t afford to lose. We’re in it to win. Our fishing, hunting and gathering rights are being jeopardized by the immediate and future impacts of these proposed developments.”

Right now public hearings are being held and Environmental Impact Statements are being developed for these oil export schemes. You can send comments to Maia Bellon, Director of the Department of Ecology, 300 Desmond Drive, Lacey, WA 98503-1274.

I urge you to join the Quinault Indian Nation and the many others who are battling Big Oil on this issue. Email for more information.

“We have a responsibility to protect the land and water for the generations to come. Together, we can build a sustainable economy without sacrificing our environment,” says Sharp.

She’s right.