October 21, 2015

Sniping at the holy cow

The Clean Shipping Coalition’s scathing rebuttal to the IMO’s outgoing Secretary General Koji Sekimizu’s statement is important not just because CSC-a coalition of mainly European environmental NGOs focused on shipping- has consultative status at the IMO.

The gist of Sekimizu’s original statement was this- that the IMO is the only place to discuss ship emissions, and that individual governments should stay out and not be tempted to legislate. That the IMO had done a stellar job so far, that it was a unique international organisation addressing emissions, and that “nothing similar exists for any other industry or business sector”.

He had left himself and the industry some wiggle room though, by saying that shipping emissions may actually rise as demand grows even as “emissions per ship will be greatly reduced under established IMO measures.” 

This has enraged the IMO’s critics. In its surprisingly harsh reaction, the CSC said that the IMO had failed to ‘grasp the nettle’ over ship GHG emissions, that it needed ‘careful guidance’ and that Sekimizu’s statement reflected the views of a complacent industry. It accused Sekimizu of making big claims in bad faith. Worse, it stated explicitly that the IMO, left to its own devices, would be unable to show the sort of leadership that the industry needed to tackle climate change. 

The CSC was particularly upset at the part of Sekimizu’s statement that spoke of the possibility of an increase in emissions with the growth of trade. “The so-called ‘servant of world trade’ is now also behind even its own customers,” the CSC said, referring to trading blocks and ship registries that have agreed to absolute emission reductions.

The CSC statement was bad enough, but Tony de Brum, the Marshall Islands foreign minister- the country has the third biggest ship registry in the world- has added fat to the fire by provocatively calling Sekimizu and the IMO a danger to the planet. Unsurprisingly, Peter Hinchliffe of the International Chamber of Shipping- representing ship operators- has weighed in subtly on the side of the IMO, saying that shipping should not be treated like an OECD industry with regard to climate change issues.

What to make of all this? A simplistic approach to the war of words would be to assume that this is just a turf war, but it is much more than that. The CSC has obliquely accused the IMO of being compromised (“The IMO also needs wise leadership free from the overweening influence of industry and Flags of Convenience”). 

Make no mistake; this is a ‘the emperor has no clothes!’ moment. It threatens the future relevance of the IMO. As environmental devastation because of climate change becomes a closer reality, this war threatens chaos in shipping. I do not say this just because of one statement by one NGO but because this is what I see happening going ahead:

1.      Public pressure to clean up the environment will increase exponentially and shipping is a natural, soft and (arguably) legitimate target.
2.      Like the UN, the IMO will continue to be lambasted for its failure to act, or failure to act expeditiously. Unfairly, often, because the IMO is, after all, just expressing the collective will of its membership.
3.      The IMO’s historical filibustering over critical issues relating to the safety of crews will come back to haunt it. Critics will cite these to chip away at the IMO’s authority to be the final voice on emissions from ships.
4.      Like in the UN, there will be, in the IMO, a rise in instances of subtle and unsubtle corruption or member entities lying to get desired outcomes or taking unilateral action. Policy paralysis will increase, causing, in turn, a greater clamour for oversight on the IMO. 

The thing is this: global shipping needs an IMO or an IMO-like organisation. It is too fragmented, too geographically spread out, too international in its operations, too interlinked and too prone to issues from often competing interests not to need an overarching and international body of some kind.

Nevertheless, I am glad that the IMO is being questioned; there should be no holy cows out there. The simple solution here seems to be to reform the IMO.  The problem is that I fear that- again, like the UN- its daughter organisation is beyond reform too.  

Postscript, October 25, 2015

During the period after submission of this article to print but before its publication, news reports say that members of the European Parliament have called on the European Union and all other countries at this year’s Paris climate summit to ensure a requirement is included for reducing emissions from international shipping and aviation.

Parliamentarians called for emissions reduction targets for both sectors to be set before the end of 2016 by the corresponding UN agencies, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).



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