Cleaner ships get backing of EU ministers

Ministers agreed in Croatia to keep cleaner shipping on the agenda. Pictured: Josip Tito's former cruiser, the Galeb. [Photo: LidiaLydia / Shutterstock]

EU transport ministers agreed on Wednesday (11 March) that greenhouse gas emissions from the shipping sector need to be reduced significantly. But a looming dispute over whether to tackle the sector at the EU or global level could scuttle efforts.

At an informal meeting of the bloc’s maritime chiefs in Croatia, ministers signed up to a declaration that targets “a carbon-neutral and zero pollution waterborne transport sector” in the EU.

The text mentions a whole raft of measures under consideration, including new fuels development, extra support for ports, a dedicated low-pollution zone in the Mediterranean and a focus on digitalisation.

“We spoke about setting ambitious environmental goals while maintaining the competitiveness of the European shipping industry,” said Oleg Butković, the transport minister of Croatia, which is currently chairing the rotating EU Council presidency.

The agreed points will be presented as draft conclusions at the next full transport council meeting. EU transport chief Adina Vălean revealed that there will be an emergency ‘e-summit’ next week to take stock of the coronavirus outbreak.

Vălean also told reporters after the meeting in Croatia that “the fact all member states signed the declaration is a very good sign that the subject is high on the agenda”.

But the declaration is notable in that it does not explicitly mention the European Commission’s commitment to include shipping in the bloc’s carbon market – the emissions trading system (ETS).

Other emitters like industrial facilities, power plants and intra-EU flights must pay for pollution permits but vessels are currently exempt.

The text does mention a “policy response to the European Green Deal”, which itself lists shipping and the ETS among the short selection of transport-specific green policies.

In her closing remarks, Vălean cited forthcoming legislation on sustainable mobility and a rethink of alternative fuels development – both due in the second half of 2020 – but not the ETS.

The Commission is looking into the carbon market plan but a proposal might be delayed to mid-2021. Coronavirus might extend the timeframe further, as schedules of the Parliament and Council working parties have already fallen victim to the outbreak.

EU starts to chart shipping’s new green course

The shipping industry will soon have to pay for its environmental impact in the EU, as both the European Commission and Parliament are moving forward with plans to include vessels in the bloc’s flagship carbon market. But there are choppy waters ahead.

Greens MEP Jutta Paulus told EURACTIV that “it is concerning that they propose only action at the global level. They don’t even speak about market-based measures or EU action. They lean too strongly on the IMO which has a track record of dragging its feet.”

Vălean insisted in her press conference that shipping has “international specificities” and that a common European approach to action at the level of the International Maritime Organisation is the right course to chart.

The UN agency has pledged to halve emissions by 2050 but has been criticised for failing to agree on a strategy that would make the goal a reality. The declaration says it must go hand-in-hand with “a vision for complete decarbonisation”.

A mark in the IMO’s favour is that a cap on sulphur emissions – which mostly cause air pollution rather than worsening climate change – was successfully implemented in January. The agency last week reconfirmed its commitment to ensuring shippers respect the new rules.

IMO member states wield power according to the number of ships registered under their aegis but the EU ministers declaration insists decarbonisation efforts must be “flag neutral”. 

That means that whatever measures Brussels adopts in the near future – be they ETS-inclusion or CO2 engine standards – will not be limited just to ships registered in EU countries, which will nip any notion of ‘carbon leakage’ in the bud.

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Fuel fight

European Parliament transport committee chair Karima Delli welcomed the declaration for keeping shipping’s carbon footprint on the agenda, saying “we must set up zero-emission ports and we must end tax incentives for heavy fuel oil”.

But Jutta Paulus – who is the EP’s rapporteur for monitoring maritime emissions – warned that the text’s support for liquified natural gas (LNG) as a “transitional fuel” risks negative consequences.

“From a greenhouse gas emissions angle, there’s no advantage in using LNG because of the known methane slip from well to turbine,” the German lawmaker said, adding that methane has the potential to damage the climate to a greater degree than CO2.

“If ports invest in LNG infrastructure now, they create a lock-in that makes other fuels, like methanol or ammonia, less attractive,” Paulus concluded.

Clean mobility group T&E also called fossil fuels “a dead-end for shipping” and added that “ministers risk opening the way for massive investments in gas infrastructure and LNG ships, leaving us with stranded assets, some of which will be publicly funded.”

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The European Commission has approved EU funding worth €130 million to expand a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Terminal in northwest Poland, triggering the ire of green activists who denounce continuous EU support for fossil fuel projects.

EU help

The declaration also welcomes the Commission’s recent proposal for a Just Transition Mechanism, a €100 billion package that is designed to help EU regions dump fossil fuels and replace jobs lost in carbon-intensive sectors.

Malta is one of the few member states that is eligible to receive money – pending approval of the next long-term EU budget – to upgrade its maritime infrastructure. The island nation’s two main ports were identified by the Commission as possible candidates.

“In view of reducing emissions by the docking ships and keeping the competitiveness of Maltese ports, it is necessary to provide an alternative to the burning of heavy fuel/gasoil in these ports by providing the ships with power supply,” the EU executive’s report concludes.

A new version of the bloc’s industrial strategy might also provide the shipping industry food for thought, in particular the launch of a ‘clean hydrogen alliance’, given that the fuel source is considered a perfect fit for zero-emission vessels.

EU announces 'Clean Hydrogen Alliance' for launch in the summer

Plans for an EU-wide hydrogen alliance were confirmed on Tuesday (10 March) when the European Commission unveiled its new industrial strategy.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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