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IMO’s 2050 Decarbonization Goal: How Do We Get There?

The reduction of carbon emissions is a topic that has been gaining importance in the conversation in recent years. Shipping is accountable for about 940 MT of CO2 annually, and approximately 2.5% of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is facing strong pressure to set net zero targets by 2050 and decarbonise the maritime sector accordingly. Although there is a common understanding of this need across the sector, a clear pathway to meet this goal remains elusive. What is, therefore, the road towards effective decarbonisation?

In alignment with the theme chosen driving the content for the TOC portfolio, “Collaboration & Innovation: The Key to Resilience”, Roel Hoenders, Head of Air Pollution and Energy Efficiency in IMO's Marine Environment Division, shared some of his insights with us.

As an international organisation composed by 175 member states, the IMO –and in this case, the Marine Environment Division– is tasked with facilitating negotiations between all its members for a variety of topics, including the transition towards zero-carbon and low-carbon fuels. To this end, intersectoral cooperation is paramount.

Mateo Wiegold, Editorial Content Producer at TOC Worldwide

In fact, following the UN’s climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow last year, the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) agreed past November to initiate the revision process of its 2018 adopted Initial IMO Greenhouse Gas Strategy and to increase the ambition in that process. The IMO’s MEPC will meet again next June and in December 2022 and will see governments discuss the GHG reduction targets for global shipping. By spring 2023 IMO will release its revised decarbonisation strategy.

According to Roel, the IMO is currently receiving proposals on how to make the decarbonisation target more ambitious while ensuring that none of its member states is left behind. In those proposals for the revised strategy we can see suggestions to (1) provide legal certainty for first movers –towards decarbonisation–  so that they do not end up with stranded assets, which in turn would reassure them of their ROI regarding energy transition; (2) help to bridge the current price gap between fossil and alternative fuels; and (3) make sure that for certain types of trade, routes, or ship-sizes and types there is sufficient flexibility in the new regulatory framework for them to get on board the journey to decarbonisation. These measures should further incentivize the energy transition through inclusion, and  tackling climate change  transversally across the industry, seeking a uniformized decarbonisation process. Furthermore, and considering the growing relevance of ESG metrics across the sector, these measures hold the potential for not only boosting energy transition, but also sustainable investment in the next generation of zero-carbon vessels and in much needed port infrastructure to serve these.

To direct those investments to the alternative fuels with the lowest overall climate impact, the IMO is currently also working on the ‘Lifecycle Greenhouse Assessment Guidelines’ that will help to identify and measure carbon footprint across the entire scope of alternative fuels, which in turn should allow decision-makers to choose the most suitable option.

In the medium-term, the IMO is looking at developing market-based measures that will introduce a carbon price on CO2 emissions from shipping and in that way incentivize the use of low-carbon fuels that will be undoubtedly be substantially more expensive, at least in the short term. Any future carbon revenues controlled by the IMO could be used to drive resources towards developing countries and small island states to support them with either climate adaption and/or climate mitigation projects, or even the development of sustainable port infrastructure. Further to this, and in the light of the ongoing energy transition, the IMO is also supporting developing countries with the potential to become production hubs for alternative renewable fuels by facilitating the building of relations between  countries and industry stakeholders.

Apart from the proposed carbon-pricing measures, the IMO has received another  proposal –currently under discussion– to create a US$5 billion research and development (R&D) fund to support the uptake of  technology to meet the targets. According to Roel, R&D will play a key role in the road to decarbonisation, yet more resources and deployment across the industry are needed – in fact, in his view, the overall R&D level for maritime is underdeveloped compared to other sectors.

In addition to initiatives funded by IMO’s GHG Trust Fund, to further support developing countries with  innovation in the sector, the 

IMO has set up Maritime Technology Corporation Centres (MTCCs) to build bridges across the industry in terms of technology developments and facilitate their transmission to the governments/industries within these regions (some relevant centres are based in Fiji for the Pacific region, Trinidad and Tobago and Kenya, among others). The organization has also established the NextGEN online platform to provide a collaborative global ecosystem of maritime transport decarbonization initiatives and link key stakeholders across the maritime value chain, and the GreenVoyage2050 project to support developing countries and states in meeting their climate change and energy efficiency goals through capacity-building. At this point it is worth mentioning that by assisting the maritime sector of these countries, IMO supports those member states in exploring the opportunities decarbonization of global shipping will bring for them.

With the MEPC meeting taking place from 6th to 10th June, further progress is to be expected following the negotiations between governments on the 2050 decarbonization target and any intermediate GHG reduction targets as well as technical and economic measures to be further developed by the IMO, including low-carbon fuel standards and market-based measures.

The significant challenge ahead, however, is how to ensure that all these proposals and measures work equally for the 175 IMO members states – ironically, it this multiplicity of stakeholders that proves to be an opportunity for strengthened collaboration in terms of maritime policy making for decarbonisation. Innovation and collaboration are, in fact, the key to an effective and resilient energy transition across the sector. As the global regulator for the industry, the IMO brings all stakeholders together to effectively address a global problem like climate change.

To learn more about TOC editorial content and speaking opportunities at our events, please contact Mateo Wiegold