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IMO agrees to cut emissions by at least 50% by 2050

The industry's first greenhouse gas emissions reductions strategy will guide decarbonisation negotiations for the next five years. The vast majority of member states supported the strategy but noted that many of its aspects were less than ideal for everyone

Delegates strike landmark deal after two weeks of negotiations as support outweighs official opposition

THE International Maritime Organization officially committed to slashing international shipping’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050 after adopting a landmark initial strategy on Friday morning amid limited opposition.

The strategy, ratified by an overwhelming majority of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee, marks the launch of the first concerted effort to reduce shipping’s GHG emissions and likely mitigates the threat of unilateral regulation by regional authorities for the time being.

The landmark agreement will be replaced in spring 2023 by a long-term strategy based on data collected from vessels by the IMO between 2019 and 2021.

According to the strategy, international shipping must peak emissions as soon as possible, reduce its total annual emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 and try to phase them out as soon as possible in this century “as a point on a pathway of CO2 emissions reduction consistent with the Paris Agreement temperature goals”

Aside from the absolute reduction in emissions, the strategy prescribes a 40% energy efficiency improvement by 2030 compared to 2008, pursuing efforts for a 70% improvement by 2050.

The strategy also recognises as a guiding principle the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities, a UN principle enshrined in the Paris Agreement that effectively concedes that developed and developing countries do not share the same obligations when it comes to combating climate change.

At the same time, the strategy maintains the IMO’s long-standing No More Favourable Treatment policy, which stipulates that all IMO regulation is applied equally to all vessels regardless of flag.

Governments also committed to assess the impacts of any future decarbonisation measures on developing countries, small island developing states and less-developed countries.

Until the 2023 revisions, delegates will deliberate and adopt short-term decarbonisation measures to facilitate the strategy’s goals.

United going forward

Despite vocal opposition over the past two weeks, only three member states made official reservations against the strategy on Friday as others resorted to raising various concerns but ultimately supported the document or did not explicitly oppose it.

Saudi Arabia strongly reserved its support for the strategy and primarily the absolute targets it sets out, while insisting it supports IMO efforts to combat GHG emissions.

Setting targets before necessary review risked making ambitions unrealistic and potentially harmful to the shipping industry, it warned.

The US expressed support for the IMO’s GHG efforts but also called the absolute targets premature, given that the there is no information yet available from the IMO’s data collection system, launched this year.

It also opposed the inclusion of the CBDR+RC principle.

The strategy’s reference to the Paris Agreement is without prejudice to the US, which has withdrawn from it, the US delegation added.

Brazil welcomed the inclusion of CBDR+RC and the consideration of the impact on developing states in the strategy but reserved its position, particularly on the absolute target, and argued that carbon intensity targets were equally if not more effective.

Two other member states stopped short of making an official reservation but vocally opposed aspects of the strategy, primarily the absolute emissions slashes. One of these two countries aligned itself with Brazil and Saudi Arabia.

Bill Hemmings, shipping director of the Brussels-based non-governmental organisation Transport and Environment, said the IMO could have gone further if it were not for opposition from some countries led by Brazil, Panama and Saudi Arabia.

“Scant attention was paid to US opposition. So this decision puts shipping on a promising track. It has now officially bought into the concept of decarbonisation and the need to deliver in-sector emission reductions, which is central to fulfilling the Paris agreement,” he said.

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