It’s back to the drawing board for GHG emissions

With the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee’s agreement Friday to an initial strategy to cut the shipping industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% from 2008 levels by 2050, it has managed to keep its fiercest critics at bay, for now.

Hailed as a “ground breaking agreement” by the International Chamber of Shipping, the IMO commitment has valiantly attempted to demonstrate that it is the only body to deal with CO2 emissions for international shipping. The International Chamber of Shipping is certainly positive. On Friday it said: “It hopes the IMO agreement will be sufficient to discourage those who mistakenly advocate regional measures which, as well as being very damaging to global trade, would not be effective in helping the international shipping sector to further reduce its total CO2 emissions.”

Below the headline agreement the IMO has signed up to a radical programme of decarbonisation that will require the widespread use of zero CO2 fuels before or shortly after 2050. This raises a number of immediate questions. And the burden of a fragmented industry haunts this scenario in a similar way it has in other conundrums that have halted the industry’s equilibrium.

Shipping as an industry has long known that it would have to directly confront the twin evils of sulphur and carbon emissions. And, to be fair it has confronted both particularly in the appliance of the Energy Efficiency Design Index.

The drive to alternative fuels, be they LNG or methanol, on the other hand, has not taken into account the carbon impact that both fuels have. This is particularly the case with methanol where its life-cycle GHG emissions exceed GHG emissions from other marine fuels, such as fuel oil and marine gas oil. Both LNG and methanol were volunteered as remedies for the sulphur problem with little cognisance of carbon emissions. There is hope that bio-methanol may be a useful interim fuel on the way to zero CO2.

Clearly new ships, the product of a rush to reduced sulphur emissions will now be subject to a limited life and the old belief that a 20 to 30-year life span could be expected from the asset will be trashed. The thought must be entering the minds of many marine engineers that countless millions of dollars have been spent on an interim technology that will pass its sell by date much earlier than had previously been imagined.

Of more immediate concern is the 2020 deadline for the 0.5% sulphur cap. What are the oil majors making of the IMO agreement? How keen will they now be to invest in plant that can process sufficient medium distillates to an industry that has for the most part rejected the marine scrubber alternative, only to find the target market seeking desperately for new alternatives?

It is now the obligation of IMO to take action and fast. There will be a review of progress in 2021, and by 2013 will have to prove that it has begun in earnest on the development of additional CO2 reduction measures. But IMO and the industry will need to look at its value to the world and get it recognised. The global shipping industry is only now witnessing an extremely delicate recovery from a 10-year downturn. Its ambitious CO2 reduction targets will be massively expensive to achieve. As the ICS indicated when it said “the targets were probably achievable. But only if governments recognise the enormity of this challenge and facilitate the rapid development of new technologies and fuels” the solution cannot come out of the industry’s purse alone.

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