Expectations were running high last week that a key IMO environmental meeting on reducing greenhouse gas emissions would make progress on limiting vessel speeds in shipping.

All eyes were on events at the Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC), with an audience of traditionally conservative shipowners being joined by extreme environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion.

The annual MEPC gathering is where all the big decisions are made on how shipping plans to achieve its target of a 40% improvement in carbon efficiency by 2030.

Growing audience

And it was the prospect of delegates enforcing slow-steaming to achieve that goal that drew fresh interest in the IMO’s often plodding diplomatic processes.

But despite expectations, there would be no quick deal. The IMO likes to take its time and even weighty concerns, such as saving the planet, are not going to rush it into a decision.

However, while environmental lobby group Seas at Risk likened the MEPC gathering to the regulator rearranging deckchairs while the Titanic sank, some progress was made.

For a start, the MEPC approved tougher Energy Efficiency Design Index standards for containership newbuildings.

Delegates also entered initial discussions on four or five proposals that involved some form of speed restrictions to achieve carbon emission reductions.

Holes were picked in all, but what did become clear was that IMO members are leaning away from a strict global speed limit for vessels, as proposed by France and, to some extent, Greece.

There appeared a consensus among delegates that the processes of drawing up such a regulation, and deciding how it might be enforced, were just too complicated for the IMO to take on, given its goal of establishing greenhouse gas reduction measures by 2023.

David Miles and Paulo Enoch from the Extinction Rebellion were keeping a close eye on events at the IMO last week Photo: Adam Corbett

Instead, there is wider support for proposals headed up by Japan, Denmark and others that would involve setting efficiency or emissions targets for vessels, and allowing owners to decide how to achieve them. Flag states would be responsible for verifying the energy efficiency performance of vessels in their register.

Under the proposals, many shipowners would be left with little choice but to reduce or optimise vessel speeds.

But there would also be incentives for stakeholders to use or develop alternative fuel efficiency technologies, or fuels, that would allow them to maintain speeds and gain a competitive edge in the market.

There is wider support for proposals headed by Japan, Denmark and others that would involve setting efficiency or emissions targets for vessels and allowing owners to decide how to achieve them

The IMO is aware that it needs to encourage technological development if it is to achieve its even more demanding 2050 emissions targets.

Marpol amendments

Both Japan and Denmark have also suggested simple changes to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, also know as Marpol, so that their schemes could enter into force by 2023.

The Japanese delegation picked up on indications from IMO member states that its suggestion of an energy efficiency index, or EEXI, for existing ships has the most backing at this stage.

But any future agreement will likely be a compromise between the differing “goal-based” schemes currently on the table.

The IMO has around half a dozen or so working groups and MEPC meetings left to hammer out such a compromise before the 2023 deadline.

Its membership is also keen on promoting improved scheduling of sailings globally to achieve “just in time” arrivals at port. Such a scheme would naturally result in slower operational speeds as ships schedule sailing speeds more efficiently to arrive exactly when a berth is available.

But, as the IMO has no jurisdiction over ports, all it can do is encourage the idea and hope owners and ports can take it forward.

The IMO also agreed the basis for a report into shipping’s global carbon emissions to be commissioned.

That might seem fairly insignificant in the general scheme of things, but it will be critical for setting a baseline for shipping’s emission reduction targets.

Setting standards

It will provide the basis for calculations on just how much vessels will have to improve fuel efficiency — and in many cases slow down — for the IMO to achieve its goals.

The IMO also agreed to go ahead with a report on the economic impact of proposed emissions regulation on developing countries.

Again, while this might not seem to contribute towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the IMO’s initiative is simply not going to progress without the support of developing nations.