Shipping was not a major feature on the agenda of the United Nations’ annual climate change summit until last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, when the industry came under growing pressure to adopt more ambitious decarbonisation targets.

The sector is again a key subject as leaders prepare to descend on the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for COP27, with maritime-focused events on every day’s agenda but one.

For Katharine Palmer, the shipping lead for the UN’s Climate Champions Team, this year’s event is about implementing commitments made since the last gathering.

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“It’s been a year of commitments, and now it’s imperative we turn those commitments into action on the ground, so this is an implementation COP,” said Palmer. “It’s an opportunity to show the action and implementation that has been taking place.”

Officially dubbed the Conference of the Parties, the COP26 conference saw a variety of agreements and initiatives involving shipping that includes the Clydebank Declaration, setting a framework for green shipping corridors; and the creation of the First Movers Coalition, aiming to use the purchasing power of companies to push decarbonisation of hard-to-abate industries.

But it also saw countries come together to push the International Maritime Organization to target zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 rather than its current goal of slashing shipping’s carbon footprint by 50% at the century’s midpoint, relative to 2008 levels.

A US Department of State official recently told an industry conference that President Joe Biden aims to make shipping a highlight of COP27, particularly through the Green Shipping Challenge, a call for concrete proposals from both the private sector and governments.

But how the UN climate conference feeds into the IMO’s deliberations is again a key topic.

Spring MEPC meeting

Palmer, who is on the Climate Champions Team through a secondment from her role as global sustainability manager at UK classification society Lloyd’s Register, noted that this is the last COP before a crucial IMO committee meeting in 2023, when it is hoped the new targets will be set.

What needs to be accomplished at the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC)’s 80th session? Palmer said the IMO needs to adopt a new ambition that is aligned with keeping global warming at no more than 1.5C.

Katharine Palmer is shipping lead for the UN Climate Champions Team and global sustainability manager at Lloyd’s Register. Photo: Jane Russell/LISW

The Climate Champions Team also want to see the IMO adopt ambitious targets for 2030 and 2040, not just 2050, and to advance a package of midterm measures that will move the industry toward them.

And it needs to adopt guidelines that ensure shipping’s emissions are calculated on a well-to-wake basis, including the upstream emissions of fuel production.

Inspiring confidence

Palmer said the COP27 efforts by the Climate Champions Team, an initiative to bring non-state actors into the climate change discussion, have been focused on giving policymakers the confidence that those goals can be achieved.

She said the aim is to highlight the work happening in a shipping sector that is showing signals of change and heightened ambition.

Delegates line up for the COP26 Climate Conference in November 2021 in Glasgow. Photo: IAEA/Creative Commons

“So we can go to COP27 to be able to say, global shipping is a source of climate solutions. It’s no longer this hard-to-abate sector,” she said, using a term often applied to shipping to describe how difficult it is to wean off fossil fuels.

“Decarbonising shipping is both technologically possible [and] it’s economically attractive. It unlocks wider social and resilience benefits for the communities with which the maritime sector interacts.”

Palmer pointed to the momentum in the shipping industry that backs that up, such as the doubling of members in a year for the Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels platform, or the 200 companies in the Getting to Zero Coalition.

The efforts of the Climate Champions Team is aimed at connecting such work by non-state actors with the work of governments, creating what she described as an “ambition loop”.

She also said it is important to “leverage synergies” between the supply and demand sides of the industry equation, with particular focus on hydrogen-based green fuels.

“This kind of sector coupling across producers and customers is going to be a critical thread that runs through COP27, so the demand voice of the shipping market is there in the green hydrogen discussions, and the green hydrogen producers have the certainty that shipping wants to buy their green hydrogen,” she said.

Palmer said that, in turn, that could help give confidence to decision-makers at the IMO by reducing uncertainty about the availability of green fuels.


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