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Time to chase the devil from the IMO

We always knew the devil was going to be in the detail when it came to climate change politics at the IMO. It’s time to face him head on and stop delaying the inevitable.

A diluted, tepid brew of short-term efficiency measures was served up at the IMO with the promise of carbon-free jam tomorrow, but it was a compromise that only united the fragmented positions in disappointment

“AN important milestone along the road to 100% decarbonisation”, was the impressively non-committal rallying cry emanating from the International Maritime Organization’s digital incarnation this week.

A diluted, tepid brew of short-term efficiency measures was served up with the promise of carbon-free jam tomorrow, but it was a compromise that only united the fragmented positions in disappointment.

Such is the nature of consensus politics you may argue, and the fact that the meeting happened at all is a minor diplomatic miracle given the pandemic-fuelled constraints.

But “better than nothing”, was not the headline takeaway shipping needed given the pressure of public opinion regarding climate change and the general feeling that the IMO’s efforts are being overtaken by cargo and finance led-initiatives along with regional emissions schemes.

This week’s debate has rather exposed the intractable nature of the task in hand and raised some worrying signals for the big debates yet to come.

The reality is that regional regulatory fragmentation is now inevitable to some degree.

The European Commission and the European Parliament’s efforts to include shipping in the European Union’s carbon market and force emissions cuts on ships calling at European ports will in no way be derailed by lacklustre operational measures that fail to put shipping in line with the Paris Agreement.

Nobody was working under the misapprehension that slapping a carbon efficiency ship rating sticker on the hull of a kamsarmax was going to be enough to make the European Parliament think twice about its planned incursion into IMO’s carbon-reduction mandate.

But those moderates looking for evidence that a global plan with teeth is achievable down the line will be struggling with the implications of this week’s debate.

Those with long enough memories to recall the tense scenes within the IMO seven years ago will easily understand that the next step in the regulatory debate will make the current operational efficiency discussions look like a pleasant distraction.

At that point the agency’s Marine Environment Protection Committee was divided down geopolitical lines over so-called market-based measures that pitched developed and developing world nations into a fundamental debate regarding who foots the bill for climate change.

The world has moved on, but the IMO has revealed itself to be similarly stuck, split and unwilling to agree on reopening the debate.

Let’s be clear, agreeing on the MBMs, as the IMO jargonistas have dubbed them, will not be easy or quick. The needs of and implications of developing, small islands, and least developed countries will have to be considered and developed countries will be obliged to help them out in this costly endeavour.

This is politics beyond shipping, but this is exactly why delaying the launch of a very complicated negotiation will only make it more painful when it inevitably comes, subject to more external pressure and likely devoid of the necessary time needed to take into account all considerations.

If those arguing that the value of this week’s uninspiring compromise is that it allows IMO and its member states to get on with the more critical work of catalysing the full decarbonisation of the shipping sector, then they should do so and stop delaying the inevitable.

We always knew the devil was going to be in the detail. It’s time to face him head on.

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