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IMO’s Feng Shui cannot hide the paucity of its climate response

On 13 May delegates attending the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) week-long committee meeting on the marine environment and shipping were greeted by the Extinction Rebellion comically moving deckchairs on an imaginary sinking ship.

Good-natured climate protesters concerned that IMO is not doing enough to meet the challenges of climate change made their point, but when industry insiders start to question the commitment of the industry regulator then it is time to sit up and take notice.

Eirik Nyhus, Director Environment at DNV GL – Maritime, is clear, “Looking into IMO’s 2050 goals it is very clear that the need for carbon neutral fuels is paramount. Without them the reduction goals simply cannot be met, and to make them available in time the R&D work needs to start now, with trials and infrastructure/deployment efforts need to be scaled pretty rapidly.”

DNV GL’s Maritime Forecast to 2050 is outlined below:

DNV GL’s shipping carbon emissions forecast.

The flagship policies for the IMO over the last nine years have been the Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI), the Energy Efficiency Operational Index and the Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan (SEEMP). These measures were meant to see shipping cut carbon emissions substantially by designing better ships and operating them more efficiently.

However, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report announced last year that the climate was warming much faster than initially expected and that there could be as little as 10 or 11 years left if we are to avoid reaching the 1.5-degree Centigrade watershed, the IMO’s policy looked hopelessly out of date. Even with new, more efficient ships, the growth in demand for shipping will easily outstrip the efficiency gains achieved by the IMO policy.

It makes the IMO look like the melting glaciers are moving faster than its own glacial policy- making bodies.

Katharine Palmer, Global Sustainability Manager at classification society Lloyd’s Register, said, “I wouldn’t say EEDI is out of date, but I would say that it currently does not deliver the ambition needed to meet 1.5. Even if the EEDI is to become more stringent, this is only for design efficiency of new ships.”

Privately, senior personnel at the IMO accept this. One told FreightWaves that EEDI and the other policy measures cannot achieve the level of change necessary in the new time scale imposed by the IPCC Special Report. “We would need to introduce operational measures to cut emissions further and new fuels,” said the source.

The source added that there would need to be market-based measures, such as a carbon tax that is favored by many delegations at the IMO, in preference to carbon trading. This would be in addition to the technological and operational fixes that could drastically cut emissions by the necessary amounts.

“Market-based measures are a medium-term goal, so they are likely to be introduced over the next 10 years,” and that is not quick enough to make the required impact on carbon emissions, conceded the senior IMO representative.

Nevertheless, Nyhus, who admitted the need for new fuels, still believes that the IMO policies are key to reducing emissions. “The EEDI will remain very important: It is an integral part of CO2 reductions going forward, both as an increasingly stringent design requirement and a driver for operational energy efficiency improvements through its potential application to existing ships. This is subject to future decisions at MEPC and still under consideration as of MEPC 74.”

Applying EEDI to existing ships was discussed in a paper produced by the European Commission, the University Maritime Advisory Services and consultancy CE Delft, with Lloyd’s Register also contributing to the final report, which was released in April 2019.

According to the report, “Under this policy [applying EEDI to existing ships], each ship would need to have an attained measure of its design efficiency, similar to the EEDI for new ships, but potentially calculated on the basis of existing documentation. A target would be set, e.g. 10 percent, 20 percent or 30 percent above the applicable reference line, and within a certain timeframe, ships would need to meet the new standard through retrofits of energy technologies or reducing engine power.”

Palmer also sees a need for improved measures, “To set shipping on a trajectory curve aligned with 1.5 [degrees Celsius], we would need to deliver reductions from existing ships and our evidence shows that we need to change how ships are currently operated (i.e. speed) – as the reductions cannot be met by design/technical efficiency alone.”

The former director of the research department of the world’s largest shipbroker, Clarksons’ Dr. Martin Stopford, who, in his retirement, has continued to look into the development of shipping, believes that all of these commentators are correct, but they do not go far enough.

According to Stopford it is imperative for shipping to undergo far-reaching and substantial changes with a range of policy decisions that will ultimately allow the industry to meet its climate goals, namely, to reduce carbon emissions to 50 percent of their 2008 levels, a figure that Stopford estimates at around 470 million tonnes.

To achieve that goal, however, shipping will need to undergo a decarbonization revolution because the business as usual case could see significant growth in demand for shipping services leading to carbon emissions of 3 billion tonnes annually, Stopford estimates. Effectively, the industry will need to cut more than 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon from its emissions total to meet the IMO’s 2050 targets.

To achieve this, Stopford outlines a four-stage process that will see a cut in the demand for shipping by reducing growth to 2.2 percent from 3.5 percent; slowing ships down to 10 knots to save fuel and cut carbon; improving vessel design and efficiency; and lastly by developing zero emission fuels.

Perhaps the most radical view expressed by Stopford is the view that global industry must cut the amount of cargo it ships. “My guess is that an in-depth study would reveal many ways of reducing cargo volumes by 25 percent, helped by more appropriate pricing, and better GHG [greenhouse gas] information. If achieved this would cut the 2050 carbon footprint from 3 billion tonnes to 2 billion tonnes,” argued Stopford.

Another major element to reduce emissions in Stopford’s opinion, and perhaps the most controversial, would be to substantially increase the tax on ships’ bunker fuel, taking the price from its current level of approximately $440 per tonne to $1,050 per tonne.

“There is a double advantage to applying a tax on bunkers,” said Stopford, “Fuel is paid for by the cargo owners so it brings them into the equation. Cargo owners will then calculate the cost of fuel in their transportation costs and so it will become economic for ships to operate [at the considerably slower speed] of 10 knots.”

All of these measures are at best “palliatives,” said Stopford, “IMO’s vision is zero carbon and no amount of fine-tuning performance or slowing down ships will deliver that. The only complete solution is a zero-carbon propulsion unit.”

For Stopford, EEDI is “a series of mumbo jumbo formulae that are not really going anywhere.” If IMO is serious about cutting GHG emissions by 50 percent within 30 years, it will need to get a move on, but if the new IPCC report is to be believed that climate change is moving faster than at first thought, then far more radical solutions must be sought.

Otherwise the IMO will be guilty of the charge brought by the Extinction Rebellion and will only shift the deck chairs about.