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Clean seas – clean shipping

Working to reduce marine pollution

Ship recycling – Bangladesh
Ship recycling – Bangladesh (Photo: Karen Langlois / IMO)

Koji Sekimizu, IMO Secretary-General, describes the vital environmental work of the International Maritime Organization

As the United Nations’ international regulatory body for shipping, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has been, and continues to be, the driving force behind efforts to ensure that shipping becomes greener and cleaner, with global standards regulating all ships, regardless of flag.

A central ‘clean seas’ role

IMO was founded in 1958, and its primary mandate is to ensure the safety of life at sea. This has resulted in many measures designed to make shipping safer and instil a safety culture, thereby minimising accidents that might pollute the sea. Key treaties include the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), adopted in 1973, is the key ‘clean seas’ treaty protecting the oceans and the atmosphere from pollution by ships. The catalyst for the adoption of the MARPOL treaty was the 1967 Torrey Canyon accident, the biggest oil tanker spill recorded at the time, which led to the establishment of a dedicated subcommittee on pollution from ships at IMO (it later became IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee) and the development and adoption of MARPOL, as well as a series of global treaties addressing liability and compensation for damage from oil pollution.

In the 40 years since the adoption of MARPOL, statistics show a steady decline in oil spills from ships, while requirements relating to sewage, garbage and emissions have entered into force internationally, and have been revised and updated to take into account increased awareness of environmental issues, including the move towards a precautionary approach, whereby discharges are banned except in specified circumstances.

Global response, global success

Inevitably, a number of high-profile accidents have also triggered amendments to pollution requirements, with IMO providing a forum for its member states to work together to ensure a proper global response to issues as they have arisen.

The 1978 Conference on Tanker Safety and Pollution Prevention followed a spate of tanker accidents in the preceding years. It adopted a series of measures relating to tanker design and operation, which were incorporated into the Protocol of 1978 relating to SOLAS and the Protocol of 1978 relating to the 1973 MARPOL convention. The MARPOL Protocol introduced measures requiring the protective location of segregated ballast tanks, to reduce the potential amount of cargo spilled after an accident.

Subsequent MARPOL amendments adopted in 1983 banned the carriage of oil in the forepeak tank, and the 1989 Exxon Valdez spillage in Alaska led to the adoption, in 1992, of key ‘double hull’ amendments, making it mandatory for new oil tankers of 5000 dwt and above built after 1996 to be fitted with double hulls, or an alternative design approved by IMO. A phase-out of all single-hull tankers was also adopted, so that ships over 25 years old would have to be taken out of service or retro-fitted.

The Erika accident in 1999 led to the adoption of amendments to MARPOL to accelerate the phase-out of single-hull oil tankers. This new timetable was then revised again by further amendments adopted in 2003, after the sinking of the Prestige in 2002.

These and other globally adopted measures have helped protect the oceans from oil spills. Figures from the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) show that the number of large oil spills (of more than 700 tonnes) fell from 246 incidents in the 1970s to 33 in the 2000s. From 1970 to 1979, there were 24.6 spills per year on average, falling to 3.3 spills per year on average, 2000 to 2009, and 1.7 spills per year 2010 to 2012.

Training, surveying, reporting and routeing

Alongside the ship design and construction requirements, there has been a heavy focus on the human element, including standards of training and watchkeeping in the STCW treaty and the adoption of the mandatory International Safety Management (ISM) Code in 1994.

The importance of survey and certification requirements has been emphasised over the years, with measures adopted to improve the process including the introduction of the harmonised system of survey and certificates (HSSC) adopted in 1990 amendments to MARPOL, SOLAS and the

International Convention on Load Lines. Other requirements have made surveys more stringent, such as the enhanced survey programme for oil tankers and bulk carriers more than five years old, in force since 1995, and the condition assessment scheme for certain oil tankers, brought in by the post- Erika MARPOL amendments.

Mandatory ship reporting schemes and ship routeing systems have also been introduced, and the designation of special areas and particularly sensitive sea areas, with associated protective measures such as ship routeing systems, has also contributed to a decline in ship-sourced pollution, as well as increased awareness of the fragility of the oceans.

The wider environment

IMO’s work has extended from addressing pollution from ships into the ocean to ship emissions that pollute the atmosphere – which may also have implications for human health onshore. Annex VI of MARPOL, covering emissions from shipping (focusing on sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide) was adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005. More stringent pollutant requirements were adopted in a revised annex in 2008, which entered into force in 2010.

In 2011, IMO adopted energy efficiency measures for ships in MARPOL Annex VI, responding to the need to address carbon dioxide emissions from ships. These include the Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) for new ships and the Ship Energy Efficiency Plan (SEEMP) for all ships.

IMO has also adopted other environmental treaties, including the International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems on Ships (2001), which entered into force in 2008, and the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments (2004), to prevent the spread of invasive alien aquatic species carried in ballast water, which is expected to enter into force in the near future.

Another treaty, the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (2009), is aimed at ensuring that ships are recycled after reaching the end of their operational lives in a safe and environmentally sound manner.

Current efforts

The current work of IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee includes a focus on implementation of the ballast water and ship recycling conventions, continued work on energy efficiency requirements and the development of environmental provisions to be included in the proposed code for ships operating in polar waters, to be finalised in 2014.

There can be no doubt that global standards and global regulation will continue to be key elements in the promotion of environmental stewardship – a core element of sustainable maritime transport. Shipping already contributes significantly to the three pillars of sustainable development – social, environmental and economic – and makes a significant contribution to global prosperity in developing and developed countries.

There remain many challenges. Shipping is essential to the continued development and future growth of the world economy, and IMO must therefore continue to act as the institutional framework for the sustainable maritime transportation sector, taking the lead in supporting the shipping industry with the appropriate global standards and helping to promote the necessary national maritime transportation policies.

In order to support countries that wish to implement IMO conventions but lack the resources, experience or skills to do so, IMO’s Integrated Technical Cooperation Programme is designed to assist governments by helping them build the necessary capacity. This assistance is now being fine-tuned by developing unique country profiles that closely identify the precise needs of developing countries.

Looking to the future

Through these activities, IMO helps to transfer knowhow to those that need it, thereby promoting wider and more effective implementation of IMO measures. This, increasingly, will be the IMO’s focus in the future, as the organisation looks to play a leading role in the drive towards a sustainable maritime sector.

IMO’s environmental work has never been so relevant. And, in the years to come, it will take on an even greater importance as sustainable development becomes not just what we would like to achieve, but a necessity on which our future will depend. IMO will continue to work to ensure clean seas – and, more than that, clean air and a sustainable future for our planet.