Carlos Bravo VillaOcean Policy Expert

We call on the international community to show more ambition by tackling the causes of climate change head-on.


There is another world, but it is in this one

 (“Il y a un autre monde, mais il est dans celui-ci”, Paul Éluard)

In recent days and weeks, we have been stunned to see how a strange meteorological phenomenon called “heat dome” is causing temperatures of almost 50 ºC, which is unprecedented in the western US and in Canada. This record-breaking heatwave has already caused the death of several hundred people, power blackouts and wildfires. President Joe Biden has joined scientists in identifying the climate crisis as causing this exceptional heatwave. And the heatwave continues in the Northern hemisphere causing havoc in Nordic countries with record temperatures of 33.6°C recorded in Kevo, Lapland.

The evidence of climate change is mounting day by day, producing ever more extreme effects. Indeed, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere continues to increase dramatically and consequently the warming of the planet continues to rise substantially. This will lead to a worsening of its consequences, including sea level rise. The United Nations (UN) is warning us that globally we are far from making the necessary efforts to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. In fact, UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, put it right to the point by observing that  ‘we are coming to a point of no return’.

The lack of commitment of a significant number of countries in the fight against the climate emergency beyond mere green rhetoric and lip service to climate change mitigation is frustrating to say the least. One specific example, illustrating the blockade and inactivity of a certain economic sector and by some States is the maritime transport sector. Let’s have a look behind the curtain.

From the 10th to 17th of June OceanCare attended the 76th meeting of the Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations specialized agency whose mission is “to promote safe, secure, environmentally sound, efficient and sustainable shipping through cooperation”.

Throughout the different sessions of MEPC 76, the famous phrase of the French poet, Paul Éluard, “Il y a un autre monde, mais il est dans celui-ci” (There is another world, but it is in this one) inevitably comes to mind. The quote is rather fitting as it perfectly defines the current coexistence of the two different realities at the IMO. A number of countries, including those of the European Union, the UK, Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and others, are making constructive proposals to try to achieve significant progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from shipping. On the other hand, another group of countries such as Argentina, Chile, Brazil, India, Russia, China, Saudi-Arabia and, sadly, many others,have systematically opposed such proposals based on the notion that this would negatively impact their economy. Which begs the question of whether such countries have yet to come to understand that climate change is not a distant thought but rather one of the direst crisis our planet faces. These countries do not seem to understand that inaction or slow action on climate change will inevitably have much higher economic costs or they simply put short-term profit before the future. And even the short-term logic can be disputed in this context.

According to the IMO, international shipping is responsible for 1,056 billion tons of annual GHG emissions. Ranked as emissions per state, the shipping sector as a whole is the sixth largest GHG emitter in the world after China, the United States, India, the Russian Federation and Japan, which are the top five emitting countries in the world (in descending order).

The Initial IMO GHG Strategy, adopted in 2018, aims to peak GHG emissions from international shipping as soon as possible and to then see them decline following the subsequent levels of ambition:

  • Reduction of CO2 emissions per transport work (carbon intensity), as an average across international shipping, by at least 40% by 2030, pursuing efforts towards 70% by 2050, compared to 2008; and
  • For the first time, a reduction of the total annual GHG emissions from international shipping by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008, while, at the same time, pursuing efforts towards phasing them out as called for in the IMO Vision, for achieving CO2 emissions reduction consistent with the Paris Agreement goals.
  • As soon as possible in this century: achieve zero GHG emissions.

To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement of 2015, this would require adopting at least a 7% annual reduction target. However, after hot discussions among both “blocks” without reaching agreement, the IMO, as usual, adopted the lowest common denominator, in this case consisting of a reduction of just 1.5% percent a year until 2023 and 2% a year until 2026 (which is a total reduction of just 11% by 2026). Also, as there was no agreement on a target from 2026 to 2030, it was decided to revise the IMO’s original CO2 plan in 2026.

Curiously and ironically almost in parallel to MEPC 76, the 21st Meeting of the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process (ICP) on the Oceans and the Law of the Sea on Sea-level rise and its impacts took place from 14th to 18th of June 2021. In other words, this was another UN meeting that focused on measures to adapt to the negative impacts of what has become an inevitable consequence of climate change.

OceanCare experts also attended the ICP meeting and closely followed the discussions and contributed when appropriate. The meeting focused on the importance of adapting to the impacts of climate change, yet what remained remarkably neglected was a meaningful discussion on reducing the causes of sea-level rise, such as reduction in anthropogenic GHG emissions. One might even argue that delegates are complacent for the Paris Agreement to take hold, no longer striving to reduce the causes of sea-level rise and climate change but rather diverting their attention to dealing with the physical impacts (e.g. coastal protection). There should be little disagreement that coastal protection and other efforts to curb the impact of sea-level rise are critical, especially for vulnerable coastal communities, however, we cannot concede and accept the climate crisis as a foregone conclusion. It is essential to take unprecedented efforts, as called for by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change) if we are to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and to thus avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. One should also not forget that this is the anticipated objective agreed by countries in the course of the negotiation that has led to the Paris Agreement in 2015. OceanCare therefore reminded delegations and panelists of the tangible and multi-ecological benefits through two concrete actions: 1) the need for an immediate ban on all new offshore oil and gas exploration and production, and phase-out of current offshore oil and gas extraction and 2) the reduction of shipping speed of the global fleet whereby a modest 10% speed reduction would lead to a reduction of GHG emissions by approximately 13%, and a reduction of underwater noise from shipping by around 40%.

Let’s switch stages again and question whether there was any good news that can be taken away from the IMO`s MEPC 76 meeting. And yes, there was. A proposal submitted by Canada, the United States and Australia requesting a new outcome regarding the review of the obsolete and ignored 2014 Guidelines for the reduction of underwater noise from commercial shipping to address adverse impacts on marine life (MEPC.1/Circ.833) and the identification of next steps was adopted.

Anthropogenic underwater noise has been scientifically recognised as a critical pollutant, negatively impacting global marine ecosystems. On a global scale, commercial shipping is one of the main causes of underwater noise, especially considering that about 80% of world trade (by volume) is conducted by sea. The larger and faster the vessels are, the more fuel is burnt, resulting in more GHGs and noise emitted. Nobody would dispute the fact that, with the projected increase in global shipping, the problem of ocean noise (and the emission of GHG) will only get worse unless urgent action is taken. However, there is fortunately a way to address both – noise and GHG – emissions from shipping with one, pretty simple, measure.

It is widely recognised that reducing the speed of ships is, among the different operational measures available. This measure is one that can contribute in the most cost-effective way to reducing the environmental impact of maritime transport and it could be imposed today. In fact, this measure makes it possible to reduce, very significantly and with immediate effect, CO2 emissions, atmospheric pollutants such as SOx, NOx and black carbon, as well as underwater noise and the risk of collisions with marine fauna.

In view of the revision currently underway of the 2014 IMO Guidelines, OceanCare will continue to work tirelessly to convince governments of the need to take bold and immediate action to reduce GHG emissions and underwater noise.

However, on a global level, we call on the entire international community to show more courage and ambition by tackling the causes of climate change head-on, which involves the adoption of concrete operational measures. We cannot continue to dismiss current challenges and to pass on the burden to the next generation by our inaction.