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The focus of the shipping industry when it comes to protecting the environment has, for the most part, been on preventing the unintentional discharge of oil and other noxious pollutants into the sea, whilst vessel emissions have been a much less prominent but, many would argue, no less important issue.
Times are, however, changing and fast. Whilst the shipping industry has been relatively sheltered from the exemptions provided for by the UN Paris climate agreement it can no longer rely on being exempt from scrutiny.
This week at the IMO in London, representatives from over 100 countries, are meeting to discuss the challenges facing the industry and to agree on a new policy amid a new focus on vessel emissions.
The uptick in scrutiny can be in no small part due to the growth of the world fleet which at today’s levels accounts for less than 3% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions but is expected to increase in the coming decades. As things stand the shipping industry today is by some measure the 6th largest emitter on the planet.
The primary legislative challenge facing the delegates is how to construct a viable system for curbing emissions when vessels move across the globe. This conundrum was partly the reason for the Paris agreement exempting vessel emissions since it was based on national targets.
Simply attributing the emissions to the vessel’s Flag is unlikely to prove an effective solution as undoubtedly smaller Flag states, such as the Marshall Islands, will be at pains to point out. It simply isn’t that easy and the solution is far from clear. No doubt there will also be resistance from some corners to stringent emission caps on the grounds of economic development.
From a technological standpoint, progress has been steady but not stellar. The shift to LNG powered vessels does seem to point the way ahead but this technology, whilst by no means embryonic, is not widely used. It has been said that it will take some 40 years before we see LNG as the primary fuel source for merchant ships.
In the meantime the industry will continue to have to make do with oil burning engines. Other developments such as cold ironing are becoming more widespread and fuel cell technology will undoubtedly have a role to play in the future but it is perhaps just too early to say to what extent.
The aim is to finalise a long term strategy for the shipping industry by 2023 so whilst we have witnessed a step change in the way vessel emissions are viewed, the reality is that solutions for dealing with the emissions are steaming ahead rather slowly.