A proposal made today by shipowners for a $2 per tonne levy on ship fuel to create a $5bn fund over 10 years for research into low and zero emission propulsion will be welcomed.

It shows that the climate change emergency the world faces is finally being acknowledged in the heart of a vital global business which has struggled to solve the challenges it faces.

But that is as far as the praise should go, since the proposal appears to be bureaucratic and slow in addressing an issue that needs urgent action now.

Further, it will be seen as smokescreen to the clear and pressing need for an effective carbon tax or levy to effectively incentivize shipowners and operators to drive down emissions as fast as possible.

The $5bn contribution is a drop in the ocean compared with even modest carbon levy proposals discussed at the Global Maritime Forum which could raise around $70bn.

The proposal has been brought together a coalition of the world’s shipowner groups: the International Chamber of Shipping, speaking for national shipping associations; Bimco; Intertanko; Intercargo; the International Parcel Tankers Association; Interferry; Cruise Lines International Association; and the World Shipping Council.

They are proposing the International Maritime Organization creates a new body to direct and administer research into low and zero-carbon technologies, named the International Maritime Research and Development Fund.

It will raise eyebrows that a group of business people who champion the virtues of ruthlessly free markets would propose such a statist and centrally-directed structure.

A more efficient and effective mechanism for accelerated research would be to ensure technology manufacturers and shipbuilders are directly incentivized by the chance of opening new markets.

Already, the market is seeing a surge in research and development initiatives from technology companies and yards, many with radical ambitions, but regrettably that constituency does not appear to have been involved in crafting this proposal.

A further stakeholder group who appear on the outside are charterers and shippers, who face ultimately footing the bill for higher fuel prices. Their understanding and acceptance of such plans would be vital.

A major flaw is the likely timescale for it to come into force, which will only further heighten the impression that this is an initiative driven by some shipowners’ desire to delay any effective action, and kick the can down the road.

The proposal will not be discussed at IMO until next Spring, meaning any agreement is inconceivable before 2021 or 2022. That would mean implementation 12 or 24 months later at best. It would be hopelessly optimistic to believe a fund could be up and running much before 2025 to 2027.

Reading the detailed text of the proposal, the authors acknowledge that it may have an impact on the debate over a carbon tax, but claim the proposal is not intended to “frustrate or delay the development” of ‘market-based measures’.

They add that the proposal may even assist in reducing the possibility of market distortion.

It is regrettable and short-sighted that the shipowning community has not grasped the potential power and fairness of a carbon levy to drive effective and rapid change.

Many in other land-based industries along with regulators and politicians understand that putting a price on carbon can act as a powerful, simple and constructive incentive to cut carbon emissions fast.

It as refreshing to hear the Global Maritime Forum put a carbon levy at the top of its agenda.

Global research and development programmes run by United Nations’ agencies such as IMO may have a small part to play, but they must not distract the world from more fundamental and effective drivers.