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It’s time to tackle shipping emissions on the high seas: A call for South African leadership


Saliem Fakir is Executive Director of the African Climate Change Foundation

The shipping industry has by and large avoided scrutiny around its contribution to climate change – but this must change.

Given that the infrastructure of the shipping industry will be exposed to the vagaries of climate change in the form of sea-level rise and erratic and severe weather events, it is ironic that when it comes to discussing the reduction of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from shipping – and particularly from international shipping – not much has happened.

Shipping accounts for three emission categories: international shipping, domestic shipping and fishing. Of these, fishing accounts for a meagre 2.5%, whereas international shipping accounts for close to 80% of the total emissions from the sector. Shipping is the backbone of world trade. It carries about 80% of the total volume of trade and so it plays a significant role in ensuring global development.

This week, from 9-13 April, the 72nd session of the International Maritime Organization (IMO)’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) will meet in London to discuss the problem of shipping emissions and the way forward. This meeting affords South Africa the opportunity to position itself as a leading voice in the negotiations.

The IMO, which came into existence in 1958, is an arm of the United Nations that is responsible for setting global standards for safety, security and environmental performance for the global shipping industry. Discussions within the IMO on climate change and shipping date as far back as the 1980s, but it was only in 1997 that the Kyoto Protocol directed the IMO with overseeing industry-wide regulation for marine bunker fuels.

Nothing noteworthy in this regard has been achieved since. However, new rounds of discussions at the IMO are looking to deal with shipping industry GHG emissions. It is in this context that the third Inter-Sessional Working Group meeting on reducing GHG emissions (ISWG-GHG 3, 3-6 April, 2018) is important as it is supposed to finalise the draft initial IMO strategy on reducing GHG emissions from ships. This will then feed into the MEPC 72.

Given that the sector does not have an encouraging track record managing its own emissions, if an international agreement is reached, this of itself will be heralded as a major breakthrough by many.

Total shipping emissions for the year 2012 were approximately 938-million tonnes CO2 (mt CO2) (2.6% of global CO2 emissions). International shipping accounted for a total of 796 mtCO2 (2.2% of global CO2 emissions). It is estimated that by 2050, CO2 emissions from the sector will grow by 50-250%. With one exception, all scenarios project emissions to be higher in 2050 than in 2012.

These numbers indicate that the sector is not yet accounting for the limits that must be in line with the Paris Agreement target of either 1.50C or 20C. To be compatible with the 20C pathway, the GHG emissions from international shipping need to reach zero by 2070, but to be compatible with a more ambitious 1.50C pathway, the same has to be achieved by 2042.

The shipping industry has resolved to place the curatorship of shipping emissions within the domain of the IMO, although attempts are being made outside of the IMO and under the UNFCCC to include shipping emissions as part of the Talanoa Dialogue – a post-Paris process named after the Fijian traditional practice of consultation and consensus building.

The IMO is expected to make a submission at the Talanoa Dialogue which is designed to take stock of global emissions from all sources at the dialogue later this year. With the exception of the US, all IMO member countries have also ratified the Paris Agreement. Therefore the IMO will need to align its GHG emission reduction strategy with the Paris Agreement.

At the last IMO meeting, only 15 of the 43 African Member States and 11 of the 36 least Developed Countries were present. Far fewer members actively participated in the discussions to govern the future GHG emissions from the sector.

South Africa became a full member of the IMO in 1995 and will be participating as a member state in the April meetings. South Africa’s role in climate negotiations has been viewed by the international community as being vital and we are often seen as a deal-maker in these negotiations. In contrast, in this case South Africa is seen to be non-committal in tackling GHGs at the IMO and its position tends to be wavering and often inconsistent with its positions taken at the UNFCCC.

The April meetings provide South Africa an opportunity to rectify this perception by addressing three goals. First, by providing leadership to African countries, South Africa can be the voice for the African interest which is currently under-represented.

Secondly, by making a case for an ambitious and stringent agreement in line with the Paris Agreement, South Africa will also make the case for pursuing climate justice in a sector that is yet to be aligned with the Paris Agreement.

And finally, South Africa can take this opportunity to communicate to the world that the new dispensation remains committed to its international responsibilities and is ready to contribute its fair share to tackle GHG.

By providing a strong voice, South Africa would also help secure a sector that by 2033 is expected to contribute close to 1 million jobs and between R129-billion and R177-billion to its own GDP.

Reaching an international agreement won’t be enough, but that’s the least that the April meeting should achieve. Ideally, however, IMO should be striving to reach an agreement that is compatible with the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal. To keep temperature rise well below 20C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature rise to 1.50C above pre-industrial levels, all GHG emission sources, including shipping, need to be reduced.

The sooner the shipping industry decides to reduce its emissions, the more manageable its decarbonisation would be. Early movers like Sweden have already proposed reducing 30% of their shipping emissions by 2030 (against 2010 levels) and achieving zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2050.

Similarly, in Norway, recent advances in transport electrification are paving the way to decarbonise its marine transport by means of electrification. Reports indicate that Norway already has two ferries that are fully powered by electricity. By 2021, 60 such ferries, and by 2023 the country’s entire fleet, will either run on electricity or on hybrid technology. This could be a game changer.

South Africa’s delegation has an important leadership role to play at this crucial IMO meeting. It must ensure the processes at the IMO are aligned with its positions at the UNFCCC.

It needs to be bold and reclaim the moral high-ground for its historical diplomacy in climate negotiations by persuading the shipping industry to take on the challenge of reducing its GHGs while at the same time ensuring that the race to reduce shipping global emissions is equitable, fair and just.

The opportunity to make shipping industry accountable for its emissions is now. DM

Saliem Fakir is the Head of Policy and Futures Unit at the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa


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