By any measure, it is no hyperbole to argue that climate change represents an existential threat to the world’s population. But part of the reason that this threat is so difficult to address is that its effects are measured over decades, providing a layer of abstraction that can drain the issues around global warming and greenhouse gases of their urgency. After all, as the saying goes, why do today what could be put off until tomorrow?

Those living at the sharp end of the climate change threat don’t have the luxury of time. For the Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands, the danger posed by rising temperatures is existential in a much more immediate sense than for most of the rest of the world. The country is comprised of low-lying 24 coral atolls, placing it at the top of the list of small island nations at risk of being claimed by the ocean if sea levels continue to rise.

“The low-lying nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may vanish entirely within our grandchildren’s lifetimes,” wrote Marcus Stephen, former President of similarly at-risk island nation Nauru, in an opinion piece for the New York Times back in 2011.

The Marshall Islands also play an important role in the shipping industry; as the third-largest ship registry in the world with 3,400 ships using the country as a flag of convenience, the islands have a voice in the maritime industry that far outweighs their diminutive stature on the world stage.

Marshall Islands call for action on ship emissions

At the end of April, Marshall Islands Minister of Foreign Affairs Tony de Brum used that voice to call for the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to set international CO2 emissions targets for the shipping industry ahead of an all-important climate change conference in Paris at the end of the year. The Paris conference aims to deliver an international agreement on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but the deal will not cover international transport. Responsibility for leading emissions reduction efforts in the shipping sector has, for the moment, fallen to the IMO.

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The Marshall Islands’ submission, made to a meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) in London, was the first to directly address shipping’s carbon footprint at an industry-wide level.

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“We are an island nation and shipping is one of our lifelines – we cannot survive without it,” said de Brum in a statement. “At the same time, carbon emissions, including those from shipping, pose an existential threat to our people and our country.”

“Any [global temperature] increase beyond two degrees is a death warrant for our countries,” de Brum later said.

The country’s leadership role and strong position unsurprisingly drew praise from environmental groups, and also received strong support from the European Commission (EC). “Agreeing on the idea that IMO would work on a GHG emission reduction goal would be an important and timely signal ahead of Paris,” an EC spokeswoman told Carbon Pulse.

During the MEPC session itself, held 11-15 May, de Brun argued that a solid roadmap for future emissions reduction efforts would be a key step: “What is needed is a clear message – an ambitious long-term goal with mid-term milestones along the way – that charts a pathway for the industry to reduce its emissions over the coming decades.”

MEPC: bad news for environmentalists and small island states

Unfortunately for the Marshall Islands, the support they received in the run-up didn’t manifest during the session. After a 90-minute discussion, the submission was quietly shelved with a thin promise to reconsider an industry target “at an appropriate future session”. Despite the EC support, EU member states Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK, Germany and Finland all echoed delegates from the US, China, Brazil and Japan in recommending the issue be pushed back to a later date.

It was a bitter disappointment for activists working to address the emissions of the shipping industry. “The Marshall Islands, Vanuatu and other small island Pacific states brought courage, clarity of purpose and the urgency of the climate change crisis to the IMO, perhaps for the first time,” said Clean Shipping Coalition president John Maggs. “The failure of the IMO to grasp the significance of this moment and make an urgently needed step change in the pace of ship GHG emission reductions was shameful.”

“New ships built in 2013 were on average 10% less fuel-efficient than vessels built in 1990.”

The urgent need for a comprehensive plan to tackle shipping emissions is clear. The shipping industry contributes around 3% of the world’s GHG emissions – equivalent to the entire output of Germany or Japan – and the industry’s footprint is set to grow significantly if things stay the way they are. The IMO’s own figures project that the industry’s emissions will rise by 50-250% under a ‘business as usual’ scenario, possibly pushing the sector’s contribution up to around 10% of global emissions.

The reasons for this projected rise are complex, and to some extent out of the industry’s hands. International trade is expected to rise in tandem with a booming global population, so the industry is going to have to grow – and pollute more – to keep up.

“Shipping is still the servant of world trade, which is expected to increase as the world’s population continues to grow,” International Chamber of Shipping director of policy and external relations Simon Bennett told the New York Times in June. “This is why the establishment of absolute reduction targets for shipping would be wholly inappropriate.”

Making a contribution: more work to do

The IMO is spearheading several initiatives to help kickstart the shipping industry’s efforts to lower emissions. During the MEPC session, the committee stressed its desire to focus on the establishment of an industry-wide data collection system for ship fuel consumption and emissions, which, as well as improving the IMO’s knowledge of the problem, could help lower emissions by encouraging competition over efficiency in the industry. The EU is also planning to measure the energy performance of large ships coming into European ports from 2018, although it will only track CO2, leaving out SOx and NOx, two other major pollutants.

Some startling statistics make it clear that much more could be done to set the industry on a greener path. According to a study commissioned by Transport & Environment, new ships built in 2013 were on average 10% less fuel-efficient than vessels built in 1990. Meanwhile, research by the UCL Energy Institute and CE Delft suggests that the most efficient ships in the global fleet are 30-50% more efficient than the average vessel. Both of these studies suggest that the IMO could stand to be significantly more ambitious in its approach to industry emissions reduction.

Fuel-saving and sustainable technologies such as cleaner LNG propulsion and auxiliary wind power systems require investment to deploy on a sufficient scale, but as Carbon War Room president José María Figueres argued in a Lloyd’s List editorial in May, more could be done to stress the business case of marine efficiency.

“Efficiency makes good business sense, not just for owners, but for the entire shipping value chain,” he wrote. “More efficient ships hold a premium for charter rates, maintain asset value for banks, demonstrate an extended lifespan and create jobs in new technologies and innovations.”

Clearly the shipping industry will have to strike a delicate balance between catering to the insatiable demands of international trade while attempting to minimise its environmental impact. But given the road the industry is now on, with emissions set to soar in the coming decades, perhaps the time for the softly-softly approach has come to an end. An industry-encompassing emissions reduction target would go a long way towards bringing together the policy, regulation and technology necessary to build the greenest fleet possible. Otherwise the industry risks putting countries like the Marshall Islands at risk while putting off the tough, important decisions until tomorrow.