The shipping industry has agreed a climate pledge to reduce its planet-heating pollution to net zero “by or around” 2050. While the agreement, published on Friday, marks an increased climate ambition from a hugely polluting industry, experts have slammed the deal as woefully inadequate in the face of an escalating climate crisis.
The shipping industry, which transports more than 80% of the world’s traded goods, produces around 3% of all human-caused planet-heating pollution due to the fossil fuels it uses to propel ships across the ocean.
But until now, the industry has not had a commitment to reach net zero – which would mean removing from the atmosphere at least as much planet-warming pollution as it emits.
That changed on Friday, when the International Maritime Organization, the UN body that regulates global shipping, published a new climate strategy after days of negotiations between the organization’s 175 member states.
In the new agreement – the 2023 IMO Strategy on the Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Ships – countries agreed shipping would reach net zero “by or around, i.e. close to 2050” depending on “national circumstances.”
The plan also includes interim commitments under the heading “indicative checkpoints,” where countries would aim to reduce planet-heating pollution from shipping by at least 20% by 2030 and 70% by 2040, compared to 2008 levels. The document also refers to “striving” targets of a 30% cut by 2030 and an 80% cut by 2040.
IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim said in a statement that the new climate strategy provides a “clear direction, a common vision, and ambitious targets.”
Industry groups welcomed the deal. In a statement, Simon Bennett, deputy secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, said: “This week’s agreement is historic for our industry and sends a very strong message that the maritime sector is serious about achieving net zero and addressing dangerous climate change in line with the Paris Agreement.”
Some Pacific Island nations celebrated the adoption of new targets.
“These higher targets are the result of relentless, unceasing lobbying by ambitious Pacific islands, against the odds,” Albon Ishoda, special presidential envoy for the decarbonisation of maritime shipping from the Marshall Islands, said in a statement.
“This outcome is far from perfect, but countries across the world came together and got it done,” Ralph Regenvanu, a Vanuatu politician, said in a statement.
Many climate groups, however, were highly critical of what they see as a toothless plan and a missed opportunity.
Some countries and climate experts had been calling for much more ambitious targets including a commitment to reduce planet-heating pollution by up to 50% by 2030 and nearly completely by 2040.
John Maggs, the president of the Clean Shipping Coalition criticized the “vague and non-committal language” in the new climate strategy. “There is no excuse for this wish and a prayer agreement. They knew what the science required, and that a 50% cut in emissions by 2030 was both possible and affordable,” he said in a statement.
Faïg Abbasov, from the non profit Transport & Environment, said the agreement was a missed opportunity. “This week’s climate talks were reminiscent of rearranging the deckchairs on a sinking ship. The IMO had the opportunity to set an unambiguous and clear course towards the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature goal, but all it came up with is a wishy-washy compromise,” he said in a statement.
Countries pledged in the Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees – and preferably to 1.5 degrees – compared to pre-industrial temperatures. Scientists consider 1.5 degrees of warming as a key threshold, beyond which the chances of extreme flooding, drought, wildfires and food shortages could increase dramatically.
The IMO’s Lim said the strategy marked a “new chapter” for shipping, but added, “at the same time, it is not the end goal, it is in many ways a starting point for the work that needs to intensify even more over the years and decades ahead.”