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An academic has warned that shipping shipping organisations are putting an overly positive spin on the improvements in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the sector.
Dr. Tristan Smith, University College London (UCL) Energy Institute, told Sustainable Shipping that the industry might be "its own worst enemy" if it failed to grasp the momentum building on the GHG issue in the run-up to the climate talks in Paris in December. Painting a false portrait of the efficiency credentials of international shipping and coming across as regressive could be damaging for the sector, according to Smith.
Earlier this week, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) delivered "some key messages to government negotiators" ahead of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Paris meeting.
ICS said the global industry was already delivering carbon neutral growth, having reduced total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by more than 10% since 2007, despite an increase in maritime trade, citing figures from the third greenhouse gas (GHG) study by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) as evidence.
"The recent results of the third IMO GHG study were celebrated for precisely the wrong reasons – using recent market-driven reductions in GHG as a sign of progress in the industry, and ignoring the risk of the reversal of this trend, or the dissonance between the same study’s forecast rising emissions from shipping, and the rest of the world’s intention to achieve absolute emission reductions," Smith said.
Shipping has indeed improved its record on energy efficiency in recent years, in large part due to slow steaming, and other measures, to save money on fuel in response to high fuel prices.
But it was not clear what ICS meant when its secretary general, Peter Hinchliffe, said the industry "is confident of a 50% CO2 reduction by 2050".
It could read as though international shipping is expected to emit 50% less CO2 overall in 2050 than today, as ICS has already highlighted that total CO2 from international shipping fell 10% from 2007 to 2012.
Another possible interpretation would be that ICS was expecting ships in 2050 to have an average Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) that is 50% more efficient compared to the EEDI baseline from the 2000s, set by the IMO. This would make them better than the current mandatory IMO requirements for a 30% improvement in the EEDI for new ships by 2025.
Or, it could mean ships being 50% more efficient at carrying cargo, referring to the carbon intensity per tonne mile of cargo carried.
Hinchliffe, when asked by Sustainable Shipping, confirmed it was the latter; a 50% reduction in the carbon emitted per tonne mile compared to a 2005 baseline.
Achieving that seems quite plausible if ships continue to be built to meet the minimum EEDI or better standards, and make use of operational measures like slow steaming to keep fuel use in check.
But Smith has been involved in studies suggesting shipping will need to do much more if it is going to keep a lid on its share of global GHG emissions.
He says that if shipping was to achieve a 50% absolute emission reduction by 2050, keeping in mind projections for global trade growth, it would need an 85% reduction in carbon intensity, or CO2 per tonne mile.
This was one the scenarios Smith and other academics presented to the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) in May this year to support a call by the Marshall Islands for the IMO to commit to a "quantifiable and ambitious" GHG emissions reduction goal for international shipping.
The report also looked at what is needed to keep the world on track to keep the global mean temperature rise to no greater than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
This would require an imminent peak in GHG emissions, followed by rapid and sustained emissions reductions across all sectors.
Under this scenario, shipping would need to cut its total CO2 emissions by 50%, and improve carbon intensity by 85%, to maintain an average 2.33% share of global CO2 emissions, according to the report.
The 2.33% share of global CO2 emissions was the average in the third IMO GHG Study for the 2007 to 2012 period.
Scenarios of future shipping GHG emissions, presented in the third IMO GHG Study (2014), suggest that under current policy, shipping emissions are expected to rise by 50 to 250% by 2050.
The lowest increase, a 50% rise in total CO2 emissions from shipping, assumes that any improvements in ship efficiency will be more than offset by growth in demand.
Members of the shipping industry, however, think that these predictions may be too pessimistic. There may be an over-prediction of the growth rate, Kathy Metcalf, President, Chamber of Shipping of America, told the ICS conference earlier this month. "There may not be full appreciation of what the IMO energy efficiency measures can do. I think it can absorb growth in industry," she added.
Fundamental policy questions remain
The UNFCCC has one clearly stated aim: keeping the global temperature increase below 2°C. To achieve this, countries are called upon to pledge new CO2 restrictions under a new Paris agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.
Developed countries are expected to promise to cut their future CO2 emissions compared to current levels, while developing countries are seen offering different pledges as it is recognised that they must be allowed some leeway to grow their economies. Their pledges currently include aims for their CO2 emissions to peak by a certain time, and to reduce CO2 intensity per unit of gross domestic product (GDP).
One question that UNFCCC negotiators have yet to provide an answer to is whether global shipping (and aviation) should be required to restrict their sectoral emissions in line with what is required on a global basis, or whether these sectors should be viewed differently.
Some have argued that to set a cap or reduction target on CO2 from shipping would effectively set a cap on global trade, the very trade that is needed to support growth in developing countries.
If one accepts that shipping must be viewed in a similar way as developing countries, it could be argued that setting targets for improved carbon intensity is the right policy for the sector. This would allow shipping to grow, but it would not mean that its emissions "grow unabated" as there would be minimum efficiency requirements in place. The IMO’s EEDI, for example, could be made more aspirational than the current 30% efficiency improvement by 2025.
Others, meanwhile, believe shipping should be held to the same standards as the world at large, or maybe even as developed countries, pointing out that shipping currently has a carbon footprint equivalent with Germany.
If that case, shipping might be subjected to a global cap on CO2 emissions. If, for example, it was capped at current CO2 emissions, it would require carbon neutral growth in global shipping.
But if the cap means maintaining an average 2.33% share of global CO2 emissions for shipping, and the world at large succeeds in cutting CO2 in line with what is needed to keep the global temperature increase below 2C, carbon neutral growth would not be enough.