The Paris Agreement’s White Whale: the hunt for greater ambition on shipping emissions — Tess Van Geelen

The shipping industry is often described as the ‘backbone’ of the international trade system, accounting for up to 90% of the global trade in goods. Even after the emergence of relatively affordable and much faster air freight, shipping continues to dominate due to its high efficiency and lower cost. Shipping is also generally seen as a greener alternative to air freight. According to some studies, shipping produces up to 40 times less CO2 equivalent than air freight.

Still, the sheer size of the fleet means that shipping makes a significant contribution to climate change. Current estimates put that contribution at around 2 or 3% of total global anthropogenic emissions. Shipping also causes a variety of other types of environmental damage, including oil spills, ship strikes that kill or wound marine animals, underwater noise pollution, and the transport of invasive species between ports.

Studies project that the rate of growth in shipping is likely to overwhelm recent efforts aimed at curbing emissions from the sector. Some studies have projected a future increase in emissions from shipping of up to 250% by 2050.

A slippery fish for regulators

The shipping industry can be difficult to regulate due to its inherently transboundary nature. It is not always clear whether regulation should be based on flagging states, ports of departure or arrival, ownership of goods, or the nationality of captain and crew, for example, and any one of these approaches would have their flaws. 

Individual states can apply their own laws to ships entering their territorial waters and ports, as well as to any ships registered under their flag. Ships are also subject to a suite of international conventions, largely overseen by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an agency of the United Nations (UN). For example, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (1973/1978) requires operators and ship owners to take steps to prevent pollution resulting from both routine operations and accidental spills.

In terms of carbon emissions, however, international regulation is patchy and increasingly overdue. Both of the major international agreements on climate change — the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Agreement (2015) — have shied away from directly addressing the contribution of shipping, in part due to the trickiness of assigning responsibility in a transboundary and highly mobile context.

In particular, as Gritsenko has noted, ‘[t]he principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) that informs the global climate conventions presupposes that differential obligations can be imposed on parties, which in the case of shipping is contradictory with the equal treatment of ships’ (p 131).

Asleep at the helm?

Many in the shipping community feel that the IMO, rather than the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is the proper body for regulating greenhouse gas emissions by ships. In 2016, the IMO released an initial roadmap for reducing emissions, which it says will be finalised in 2023, allowing time to collect data on the current distribution of global fuel consumption and emissions in the industry. 

In the meantime, the IMO has also introduced the Energy Efficiency Design Index as a mandatory minimum standard for all new ships, which aims to reduce emissions through optimised ship design. However, this index has been criticised on the basis that it ‘neglects the operational variations that determine the real energy efficiency’.

The IMO also imposed a new rule limiting the sulfur content of shipping fuel oil, which came into effect in January 2020. Sulfur oxides in the atmosphere can cause acid rain, affecting both terrestrial and marine ecosystems, as well as respiratory and cardiovascular disease among humans. However, a recent study suggested that the low-sulfur fuels being used instead may produce significant black carbon emissions — a short-lived but highly potent greenhouse gas (in just a few weeks it can trap up to 3000 times as much heat in the atmosphere as regular carbon dioxide does over a 20 year period).

Recently, Apuzzo and Hurtes argued that the IMO has ‘repeatedly delayed and watered down climate regulations, even as emissions from commercial shipping continue to rise’. They accused the IMO of being too secretive for an international regulatory body, typically banning journalists from attending meetings. They also argued that the agency is stacked with industry reps, rather than government officials or regulators: ‘Shipbuilders, oil companies, miners, chemical manufacturers and others with huge financial stakes in commercial shipping are among the delegates appointed by many member nations.’

The authors quoted Albon Ishoda, a diplomat from the Marshall Islands, saying that the IMO has ‘gone out of their way to try to block or water down or discourage real conversation’ on climate change. In 2018, the IMO agreed to an emissions reduction target of 40% by 2030 on 2008 levels, which would mean a 2% reduction per year. Ishoda dismissed this target as ‘business as usual’. 

In August 2021, the Marshallese diplomat joined with delegates from the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to call for a target of net zero by 2050. The proposal is due to be discussed at the IMO’s next environmental committee meeting in November. Ishoda was quoted by Climate Home News saying that ‘We are not naïve to the idea that it may be a very difficult discussion in the IMO — but we are also not naïve to the most recent IPCC report which has clearly justified that more needs to be done in terms of emissions reductions.’

Last to round the mark

Shipping is also regulated at a regional level by organisations like the European Union (EU). In 2013, the EU Commission proposed a strategy for Integrating maritime transport emissions in the EU’s greenhouse gas reduction policies, which included emission reduction targets, a monitoring and reporting system, and an emissions trading scheme.

Growing impatient with the IMO’s laggardly pace on shipping emissions, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee has agreed that if the IMO’s roadmap stalls, it will move to include emissions from shipping in the existing EU Emissions Trading Scheme — much to the ire of the IMO. The Secretary-General of the IMO struck back at this, warning that regulatory interventions by regional actors like the EU risk undermining more comprehensive and uniform efforts at the global level.

But if the IMO wants to retain control over the regulation of global emissions from shipping, it probably needs to fast-track its emissions reduction strategy. It is already late to the party, and as regional actors charge ahead, it risks being left in their wake. The IMO is better placed than regional bodies like the EU to set global standards, but the EU has more direct enforcement power and could be used as an effective enforcement partner, rather than an adversary. 

The IMO should also ensure that its strategy is consistent with the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, which would bring it in line with the EU’s own emissions trading scheme and emissions reduction targets, alleviating the risk that regional interventions might undermine global efforts by the IMO.

Tess Van Geelen is an Assistant Editor of the ILA Reporter.

Suggested citation: Tess Van Geelen, ‘The Paris Agreement’s White Whale: the hunt for greater ambition on shipping emissions’ on ILA Reporter (2 September 2021) <>