London/Brussels — Nearly 200 countries are nearing a legally binding agreement to reduce pollution from the world’s cargo ships, a step forward after two years of talks on how the industry should clean up its emissions.

A series of virtual meetings will start on Monday hosted by the UN shipping agency over a new rating system that will measure the carbon intensity of 60,000 large ships that haul everything from containers to crude oil.

After a historic agreement in 2018 by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), its members are negotiating ways to get to their goal of halving the industry’s emissions by the middle of the century. All of them agree a ratings system is needed for the carbon intensity of ships, but they remain divided about how it should be calculated and how it should be enforced, according to people familiar with the talks and documents seen by Bloomberg.

The International Chamber of Shipping, a group that sponsored a compromise proposal alongside 14 other countries including Japan, China, Germany and India, said the deal would represent a leap forward for the industry.

Environmental groups say ship owners are not moving quickly enough and that the IMO’s effort will do little to contain the threat of global warming.

Remain split

“We know more can be done and what we do must work in practice as well as in writing,” said Simon Bennett, deputy secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping. “If we’re to achieve a truly global solution to the total decarbonisation of world shipping, then radical, innovative technological solutions must be found.”

From Monday, parties to the IMO talks will discuss a compromise proposal mapping out how the industry will act. They remain split on the following issues:

  • European countries argue that the most polluting ships should be sent to scrap if they still don’t comply by 2029.
  • Others including China and Japan, which chairs the IMO’s environment body, with the International Chamber of Shipping, say Europe’s proposed enforcement measures are too stringent since ships already face energy audits that could lead to penalties and sanctions if they do not comply.
  • Environmental groups and countries vulnerable to the worst impacts of climate change, such as the Marshall Islands, say none of the measures are tough enough and even Europe’s plan will allow shipping emissions to continue rising for another decade.

“Politically speaking if they agree the proposals, then they have made progress,” said Faig Abbasov, director of shipping for the campaign group Transport and Environment. “But this compromise text means they are essentially agreeing to do nothing.

The World Bank says the shipping industry is responsible for enormous pollution.

“That’s partly because many vessels burn a heavy form of oil called bunker fuel that’s rich in sulphur, which leads to acid rain. If it were a country, shipping would rank alongside Germany as the world’s sixth-largest emitter of CO2,” the World Bank says.

The industry brought stringent new requirements in this year on fuel quality, helping reduce sulphur emissions. It remains a major source of nitrogen oxides, another powerful greenhouse gas.

Progress in cleaning up the industry has been slow. Talks began in 1995, and it took until 2018 for the IMO to agree on a target. The goal is for shipping to reduce its carbon-dioxide intensity by at least 40% by 2030 compared with 2008 levels.

They also agreed their plans should fall in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Measuring shipping emissions in the middle of the ocean where there are no air pollution sensors makes the task of tracking progress difficult.

Any measures proposed by delegates at the end of this week’s talks will then be discussed and potentially agreed at a second round of negotiations set for November 16 to November 20 before being adopted six months later, said Natasha Brown, an IMO spokesperson.

Countries will thrash out this week the details of the legal framework for enforcing the ratings system, while talks on how to actually calculate the rating won’t be held until April 2021.

“What usually happens is you end up with some sort of compromise from the different countries bringing in the different elements together, so that wouldn’t be surprising,” Brown said.



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