“Get in line or get out of our way.” That was the message laid down by New Zealand’s own climate activist India Logan-Riley at COP 26, the United Nations climate summit held in Glasgow in November 2021. IMO has long been under pressure to get shipping in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement to keep the increase in global average temperature well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C. With the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report making for grim reading on the direction of climate change, even under current commitments, the pressure on IMO is only increasing.

Despite the Paris Agreement being adopted on 12 December 2015 (and entering into force on 4 November 2016), the IMO did not adopt its initial Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Strategy until 13 April 2018. The aim to reduce total annual GHG emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008, and “to phase them out as soon as possible in this century” was quickly criticised as lacking ambition, and incompatible with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

The Fourth IMO GHG Study 2020 showed that the GHG emissions of total shipping increased 9.6% from 2012 to 2018,1 with shipping estimated to account for 2.89% in global anthropogenic GHG in 2018.2 In the absence of further action, instead of reducing by at least 50%, international shipping emissions are expected to represent 90% to 130% of 2008 emission levels by 2050.

Put in stark terms, an analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) shows that the carbon budget under IMO’s initial GHG strategy and 2050 target is twice that required to be compatible with the goal of 1.5. To keep well below 2°C, the ICCT says emissions will need to be cut by one-third by 2030 and by two-thirds by 2040, relative to 2008 levels.3

At the November 2021 meeting of IMO’s environment committee (MEPC 77) member states started negotiation on a revised GHG strategy, which will be agreed to in 2023. In opening the meeting, the IMO’s Secretary General spoke of IMO’s “duty to join worldwide commitments of increased ambition towards tackling climate change” and the need for the industry to “lead by example and provide tangible progress in our efforts to decarbonize international shipping”.

The practical challenge is one of timing. Even if deeper measures are agreed by 2023, the implementation of those measures will not be immediate, and IMO runs the risk of doing too little. In the face of increasing recognition of the climate emergency, and the need for urgent action, there is a clear signal that some countries are prepared to do much more, much sooner.

Clydebank Declaration for Green Shipping Corridors

Twenty-two countries4 signed the Clydebank Declaration for Green Shipping Corridors on 10 November 2021. The declaration is a shot across the bow to other member states at IMO as it looks to start negotiating a revised GHG strategy.5

While IMO’s initial strategy talks about phasing out GHG emissions this century (emphasis added), the Clydebank Declaration refers to the need for international shipping “to keep accelerating its level of action” and the imperative of “a rapid transition” to clean shipping. The Declaration sets out the collective aim of the signatories to decarbonise shipping routes and establish zero emission routes between two or more ports – the green corridors. There is a concrete target of at least six green corridors by the middle of this decade, to be reviewed, and the aspiration of more routes, longer routes and/or more ships on such corridors by 2030.

The Clydebank Declaration recognises that establishing zero carbon routes will require a multi-faceted and co-ordinated approach between regulators, port operators, shipping lines, and industry players. Commercially viable zero-emission vessels need to be accompanied by developments in clean maritime fuels, research and investment in alternative propulsion systems, and the availability of landside infrastructure to support these innovations.

The action points for signatories include taking steps with relevant willing ports, operator(s) and others along the value chain to decarbonise a specific shared maritime route, including through identifying and exploring actions to address barriers to the formation of green corridors, such as through regulatory frameworks, incentives, information sharing or infrastructure.

Broader Climate Context

The Clydebank Declaration is not occurring in a vacuum. The most recent IPCC report had a stark warning that global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless there are significant changes in the coming decades.

The effects of climate change are already being felt across every region, and the effects will increase with additional warming. While the goals of the Paris Agreement are still within reach – just – this decade has been referred to as the world’s ‘last best chance’ to stabilise the climate. That will require significant reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the coming decades.

The need for urgent action is resulting in significant changes to policy and new legal mechanisms to address the challenge. The European Union has the goal to be the first carbon neutral continent by 2050, with a stated goal of at least 55% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2030.

Internationally, there is an increased focus on the full carbon footprint of goods and services taking into account the carbon emitted throughout the production and supply chains. As part of its legislative package, the EU has also introduced the first carbon border tax on some imports. It is a measure that is likely to become more widely used as states look to ensure that domestic policies are not undermined by energy-intensive imports. The implications for shipping, as an industry, and by its association with trade, is clear.

The Clydebank Declaration is ambitious, but it needs to be. What is less clear is whether IMO will match that ambition. If it does not, it needs to get out of the way and ensure that international regulations do not impede the level of action required to bring shipping into line with global climate goals.

If you would like to know more about the issues arising in this matter, please contact Stacey Fraser.

  1. From 977 million tonnes in 2012 to 1,076 million tonnes.
  2. Up from 2.76% in 2012.
  3. https://theicct.org/blog/staff/marine-shipping-imo-ghg-targets-global-sept21.
  4. Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Republic of Ireland, Italy, Japan, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, The United States of America.
  5. Negotiations on the revised strategy began at the 77th session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 77) in November 2021.

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