The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) last week agreed to establish an expert group to prepare a feasibility study on market-based instruments to cut greenhouse gas emissions from ships.
A meeting of the UN agency's Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) said the new group will study the feasibility of options like bunker fuels and emissions trading before preparing an impact assessment.
In addition, the committee decided to postpone finalising mandatory fuel-efficiency standards for ships, concluding that more work remains to be done.
It said it had drafted plans for an Energy Efficiency Design Index for new ships to ensure that new vessel designs are environmentally friendly, as well as for a Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan for all ships in operation. But it referred further work on outstanding issues, including ship size, target dates and reduction rate, to a working group that will report back in September.
The IMO has been trying to portray itself as a credible partner in international efforts to curb global warming amid criticism that it has been slow to act in controlling greenhouse gas emissions.
"Global issues demand global solutions," said IMO Secretary-General Efthimios E. Mitropoulos at the close of last week's meeting, arguing that the world should take heed of lessons learned in last year's UN climate talks in Copenhagen to avoid repeating them in further negotiations set to take place in Cancún at the end of the year.
The shipping world should work "not in a fragmented manner, but as responsible members of a community that has a role to play in this effort," Mitropoulos added.
Bunker fuel levies were on the table at the Copenhagen climate talks in December, but any reference to them was left out of the Copenhagen Accord agreed at the close of the conference.
A major stumbling block on setting global emissions targets for international maritime as well as aviation emissions was how to reconcile the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which governs the climate negotiations, with that of the equal treatment of ships under the IMO.
These are in direct opposition with one another, as the UNFCCC requires rich countries to bear a higher burden while the maritime sector considers that the cross-border nature of its activities would require any bunker fuel taxes to be imposed evenly across the globe to prevent distortion of competitiveness.
The EU appears isolated in its calls for targets. The US rejected any mention of bunkers at Copenhagen in order not to introduce the common but differentiated responsibilities principle to bunker discussions. Developing countries headed by China, India and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, argued in advance that debates on market-based measures should be put on hold until a new climate agreement is struck.
The EU has said that it will act on its own if neither the IMO nor international climate negotiations succeed in curbing emissions from ships. It has already decided to add aviation to its emissions trading scheme from 2012.
"We have made clear that if the IMO cannot sort out things, if the UNFCCC cannot sort out things, by the end of next year, we will come up with proposals," said Jos Delbeke, director-general of the European Commission's new climate action department, last week.
The EU is actively looking at cap-and-trade as an option, he added.