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MEPC 80: A goal down, but all still to play for

Posted 12.07.2023
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As any of my colleagues will tell you, my opinions about the IMO change several times a week.

On some days I fall in line with the belief that it’s a venerated, almost miraculous organisation; an improbable feat of consensus and collaboration in our messy, fractured and factionalised world. And on other days there is real anger at the lack of progress, at the intractable and frustrating process, and the saccharine self-congratulatory nature of the whole institution.

The truth, as with most things, is probably somewhere in the middle. As frustrating as the IMO can be (and by IMO, I refer to the structure of it, the members within it, and its ability to enact change) having a global regulator is still a feather in shipping’s cap; allowing for collective action and – yes - consensus, on nearly all the issues that the sector has to overcome.

And what challenge, ultimately, is bigger than the climate crisis? We often hear that shipping “stands at a crossroads” with respect to decarbonisation. MEPC 80 was about revising an initial GHG strategy formulated in 2018. For many reasons, including febrile geopolitics, the Covid-19 pandemic and an overheated global economy, 2018 may as well be a lifetime ago.

The ‘crossroads’, then, have changed radically between that initial strategy being laid down and today. The outcomes of MEPC 80 therefore bear repeating with this context in mind, because, within that context, they are significant:

By any measure, this is a comprehensive package. Of all the commentary I have read, I think Lloyd’s List’s Editor, Richard Meade, put it best: “What’s important here is that the global framework for reducing GHG emissions from a global industry remains, for now, intact, with sufficient credibility to move forward…. this is a multilateral compromise which unifies Member States around a much stronger set of reduction signals than we had a right to expect given the extreme nature of the political discourse that led up to this point.”

In short, given the context, MEPC 80 is a milestone worth celebrating. It is also significant that national governments were able to find a strategy that they agreed on, so diverse were their own interests.

There is one thing to caution against, however. Let’s be satisfied, yes, but we must be careful not to fall into a “celebration trap”.

The general view that MEPC 80’s outcomes would have been nigh inconceivable five years ago is fair. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticise the process, the bowing to consensus, and the ‘UN collegiate’ approach to diplomacy, which means that the slowest, least progressive and least well-intentioned actors have the ability to grind the whole world down to their pace.

We often hear that we have to “bring everyone along on the decarbonisation journey” without realising that it is us that is being ‘brought along’ by the laggards.

We should also not forget that shipping is still out of sync with the Paris Agreement. The freshest estimates show that shipping’s revised strategy will see the sector exceed its current share of the world’s 1.5°C carbon budget. Thankfully, they also suggest that shipping will not exceed the 2°C carbon budget.

The reality is that for all its achievements, MEPC 80’s revisions have left the IMO’s GHG strategy with a number of omissions, ambiguous language, and get-out-of-jail-free-cards. The delay on a fuel levy, for example - to allow time for “impact assessments” – will see millions of tonnes of carbon go untaxed and countless new technologies wither on the vine, starved of market pull factors.

Carbon capture and storage, which is undergoing some of the most exciting and rapid technological development, was also conspicuous by its absence, instead categorised as a “low priority item” for the next intersessional working group.

Like many, my main issue is that this lack of pace is frustratingly and fundamentally disconnected from the industry that I see: a vital and vibrant enabler of global trade, filled with innovators whose technologies, solutions and approaches will radically disrupt the way that shipping does business.

Don’t these leaders deserve a GHG strategy that dared to go a little further? But I am also aware that our clients are often among the most progressive in a sprawling, fragmented sector.

More hard work is needed of course to broaden the progressive pool, with arguments based upon the truth, not hyperbole. Polls from post-MEPC 80 webinars (that will remain unnamed) show a majority of viewers believe that future fuels will be a silver bullet solution by the end of the decade. The stark reality is that this is totally disconnected from issues of cost, supply, infrastructure and to the fact that shipping will have to get used to properly competing for fuels with other industries.

Consider this, then, a plea for continued ambition, and for us to collectively bring the industry’s decarbonisation strategy in line with the vision of its most progressive actors. MEPC 80 is a launchpad for future action. It’s the textbook example of not letting perfect become the enemy of good. In other words, and like all good football matches: we might be late in the second half and a goal down, but it’s all still to play for.


Rhys Thomas

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