Europe must stand firm and clean up shipping’s giant CO2 emissions 

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Shipping will have to clean up its act, says Green MEP Bas Eickhout. [Photo: Peter Gudella / Shutterstock]

More people than ever are aware that the giant ships carrying 80% of global trade are also giant polluters. Green MEP Bas Eickhout argues that regulators face a choice between real and fake CO2 regulations for shipping at UN negotiations next week.

Bas Eickhout is a Dutch MEP with the Greens/EFA group. He will lead the Parliament’s delegation to the COP25 summit in Madrid in December.

Just 15 of the largest ships emit more health-damaging sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide air pollution than all the world’s cars, and the whole sector emits more CO2 than any country outside the top five emitters.

It was fantastic then, that last year European countries were instrumental in reaching a global agreement on cutting Greenhouse Gas emissions from the shipping industry, at the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

It means we’ve finally got headline targets for this polluting sector – to at least halve emissions by 2050, reduce the carbon intensity of the business by 40% by 2030, and to peak emissions in the short term as soon as possible.

This year however, progress has stalled. Countries can’t agree on what specific short-term measures to adopt, to actually start achieving these targets.

Germany, Denmark and Spain have supported real, transparent efficiency standards for how well ships are operated – based on how much fuel they buy.

However, rival proposals from Japan, and lobby group BIMCO, would ignore actual fuel consumption and instead introduce a “technical measure” – meaning ships just get issued a certificate based on their technical parameters, in artificial, ideal conditions.

This would leave CO2 emissions to keep rising for another decade or more in the world’s 6th largest emitter.

Japan’s proposal, known as the “Energy Efficiency from Existing Ships Index” (EEXI), involves applying the efficiency standards for newly built ships in the future, to ships that exist already today.

But because these standards have been purposefully set so low, thanks to Japan’s influence over the last decade, many, if not most, ships in operation throughout the 2020s would have to do literally nothing in order to comply.

The proposal could be branded “fake regulation”, giving the appearance of action on climate change, when in reality the sector’s emissions are almost unaffected on their upwards growth path (only 1% to 6% lower in 2030 than they would otherwise have been).

Moreover, for any ships that don’t comply with the proposed minimal EEXI standards, Japan is proposing that instead of having to invest in genuine decarbonisation technologies, they be allowed to comply by installing “Engine Power Limitation” devices.

But it will be difficult for regulators to verify whether these devices are actually being used in the middle of the ocean, and back at shore difficult to find out whether they have been tampered with. Given the large sums of money at stake, this risks creating the next big emissions cheating scandal.

It’s time to grow up and stop these secretive shenanigans. Our citizens demands are clear – they want a safe climate for themselves and their families. In September, 7.6 million people marched worldwide demanding their governments “listen to the science” regarding our impact on the climate.

And what does the science say? That we must make “rapid and far-reaching” changes in the transport sector, along with all other sectors of the economy over the next decade. Only this will cut CO2 emissions by the 45% needed by 2030, to prevent increasingly dangerous outcomes.

If commercial interests in the shipping sector claim the right to keep increasing emissions until 2030 and beyond, many countries will be forced into an even steeper challenge.

And if a giant, multi-billion dollar industry like shipping, predominantly run out of tax havens, refuses to decarbonise, why should developing countries make the effort? Why should any of the 190 countries whose emissions are lower than the shipping industry make the effort?

If we really want to cut shipping sector CO2, we know exactly what will work.

A 30% speed reduction phased in by 2030 would cut CO2 emissions from shipping by 193 million metric tonnes as an annual average, according to a 2018 analysis by CE Delft. That’s the same CO2 saving as shutting down about 48 coal-fired power stations.

Tough “operational efficiency” standards based on monitoring ship’s real-world fuel purchases, as proposed by Denmark, Germany, Spain could achieve a similar, or even greater reduction by 2030, if set at the right level.

The next round of talks at the IMO, the “Intersessional Working Group on Greenhouse Gases” is happening in London on November 11-15.

European countries must grow a backbone, stand up to vested interests, and drive clean, green technological innovation in the shipping industry. This would save shipowners money on their fuel bills, but most importantly help stabilise our climate.

Subscribe to our newsletters