Reducing GHG emissions from ships: IMO’s vision

Greenhouse gases

Dr Edmund Hughes, Head of Marine Environment at IMO, examines what the shipping industry is doing to cut climate-changing emissions

How do you decarbonise an industry that is crucial to global development but currently almost wholly dependent on fossil fuel? It’s not easy, but it has to happen.

The industry is international shipping.  The world relies on ships to transport the goods that people need and want. World seaborne trade has reached some 10.7 billion tonnes annually. Without shipping, the world simply would not function. Around 80% of global trade by volume and over 70% of global trade by value is carried by sea and handled by ports worldwide.

Powering vast machinery

The majority of the massive ocean-going ships that transport thousands of containers and heavy cargoes, such as grain and iron ore, use carbon-based fuel oil to power their colossal engines. Ships are the biggest machines on the planet and use the world’s largest diesel engines.

Of course, when you look at the relative energy efficiency of different modes of transport, and consider how much energy is used to carry each tonne of cargo per kilometre, it is clear that ships are by far the most efficient.

But shipping cannot continue to burn fossil fuel, with its associated emissions, without planning for decarbonisation. The world demands action on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to halt climate change, and the planet needs sustainable shipping that is clean, green, energy-efficient and safe.

Change is afoot

IMO’s projections of CO2 emissions
IMO’s projections of CO2 emissions from shipping in the years to 2050, on the scale between business as usual (a huge increase in emissions) and a level approaching the zero carbon target, showing the relative scope for three types of emission reduction measure.

Change has to happen – and it has already begun. In 2018, the Member States of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the specialised agency of the United Nations that regulates global shipping, adopted an ambitious initial strategy on reducing GHG emissions from ships.

The strategy commits, within this century, to cutting GHG emissions from international shipping and to phasing them out as soon as possible. In 2012, CO2 emissions from international shipping were estimated to be around 800 million tonnes or around 2.2% of global anthropogenic emissions (Third IMO GHG Study 2014).

The ambition within the strategy is to cut CO2 emissions per transport work (carbon intensity), as an average across international shipping, by at least 40% by 2030, pursuing efforts towards 70% by 2050, compared to 2008; and to reduce total annual GHG emissions from ships by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008, on a pathway of CO2 emissions reduction consistent with the Paris Agreement temperature goals.

Developing existing energy efficiency measures for ships and new short, mid- and long-term measures could help achieve the targets. Research, development and investment will be crucial to make zero-carbon ships more attractive through novel sustainable technologies and alternative fuels.

Some shipping lines and companies have already embarked on the path to decarbonisation. There are battery-powered hybrid expedition cruise ships (Hurtigruten), diesel/battery hybrid ferries (Color Line) and ships trialling biofuel for carbon neutral voyages (Maersk). Other companies are looking at hydrogen fuel cells. Major shipping banks have adopted a framework to enhance the alignment of ship finance portfolios (the ‘Poseidon principles’) with IMO goals. The strategy sends a clear signal to innovators and investors that decarbonisation is the way forward.

Since 2011, IMO has adopted mandatory energy efficiency measures for shipping. All new ships built since 2013 have had to comply with minimum energy efficiency levels, which become more and more stringent over time. For specified ship types, under the Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) requirements, new ships must be up to 10% more energy efficient by 2015 (phase 1), 20% by 2020 (phase 2) and 30% by 2025 (phase 3).

In May 2019, IMO approved draft amendments to strengthen EEDI requirements (as set out in Annex VI  of IMO’s International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships [MARPOL]). These draft amendments are expected to be adopted in spring 2020. The entry into effect date for EEDI phase 3 has been brought forward for some ship types  (for example, 2022 for container ships,  general cargo ships and cruise passenger ships with non-conventional propulsion) and the reduction rates for container ships for EEDI phase 3 have been strengthened.

These EEDI improvements fall under the short-term measures identified in the strategy. As well as the EEDI for new builds, all existing ships must already keep on board a Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan (SEEMP). This requires the shipowner to look at what can be done to improve energy efficiency, for example, through improved voyage planning and more frequent cleaning of propellers. Other technological and operational measures also have the potential to reduce GHG emissions.

As a short-term measure, IMO has started to consider proposals to improve the operational energy efficiency of existing ships, with a view to developing draft amendments to MARPOL Annex VI and associated guidelines.

Other short-term measures include undertaking GHG emission studies. IMO has embarked on its fourth GHG study (to be issued in autumn 2020), to provide an inventory (for 2012–2018) of current global emissions of GHGs and relevant substances emitted from ships of 100 GT and above engaged in international voyages, as well as scenarios for future international shipping emissions (2018–2050).

Data will help in decision-making. From this year, IMO will also have fuel oil consumption data collected under mandatory requirements for ships over 5,000 gross tonnage, which represent 85% of the total  CO2 emissions from international shipping.

Further measures

Visualisation of a container ‘windship’
Visualisation of a container ‘windship’, from French naval architects Ayro-VPLP.

Some measures could adversely affect developing countries, especially small island developing states and low-income countries, many of which are totally dependent on sea transport and the most vulnerable to climate change. IMO has approved a procedure to assess the potential impacts of proposed measures before they are adopted, considering aspects such as the impact on market connectivity, food security and socio-economic development.

The need to further optimise the logistics chain and its planning is also identified as a short-term measure, and ports are recognised as important stakeholders. In May  2019, IMO adopted a resolution inviting Member States to encourage voluntary cooperation between the port and shipping sectors to contribute to reducing GHG emissions from ships.

This could include regulatory, technical, operational and economic actions, such as the provision of onshore power supplies (preferably from renewable sources); safe and efficient bunkering of alternative low- carbon and zero-carbon fuels; incentives promoting sustainable low-carbon and zero-carbon shipping; and support for the optimisation of port calls, including facilitation of just-in-time arrival of ships.

In the mid-term, measures that could be finalised between 2023 and 2030  have been identified. They include developing an implementation programme for the effective uptake of alternative low-carbon and zero-carbon fuels; operational energy efficiency measures for new and existing ships; and new GHG emission reduction mechanisms to incentivise emission reduction.

In the long term (beyond 2030), the strategy identifies further action to enable the shipping sector to assess and consider decarbonisation in the second half of the century and to facilitate the adoption of other new, innovative emission reduction mechanisms.

Progressive projects

IMO Member States are committed to the strategy, with intersessional working group meetings shortly taking place, ahead of the next meeting of IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee, the lead IMO body dealing with emissions.

Alongside regulatory developments, IMO has executed major global projects to support developing countries in implementing the IMO measures already adopted, and to encourage technology transfer.

One such project is the Global Maritime Energy Efficiency Partnerships (GloMEEP) Project, aimed at supporting the uptake and implementation of energy efficiency measures for shipping. The GloMEEP Project was launched in 2015 in collaboration with the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Development Programme.

Launched in 2017 as a public-private partnership, the GloMEEP Global Industry Alliance to Support Low Carbon Shipping is identifying and developing solutions to overcome barriers regarding the uptake of energy efficiency technologies.

The Global Maritime Technology Cooperation Centre Network project, funded by the European Union, has established a network of five Maritime

Technology Cooperation Centres (MTCCs) in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific. Through various activities, the MTCCs are helping countries develop national maritime energy-efficiency policies, promoting the uptake of low-carbon technologies and establishing voluntary pilot data collection and reporting systems.

The GreenVoyage-2050 project, a collaboration between IMO and the Government of Norway, was launched in 2019. This project will promote global efforts to demonstrate and test technical solutions for reducing GHG emissions, and enhance knowledge and information sharing to support the strategy.

A multi-donor trust fund for GHG has been established in 2019 to provide a dedicated source of financial support for technical cooperation and capacity-building activities to support the implementation of the strategy.

In adopting the strategy, IMO has set out its vision, with its sights set on substantially cutting GHG emissions from shipping by 2050. This sends a clear signal to all stakeholders that decarbonisation has to happen, and helps create the conditions in which it can happen.