U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the "Accelerating Clean Technology Innovation and Deployment" event at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain November 2, 2021. Evan Vucci/Pool via REUTERS

The COP26 Gathering and Upcoming IMO Meeting, With a Sprinkling of US Strategy

Barry Parker
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November 2, 2021

Alternative zero carbon fuels for shipping are in the pipeline, with uncertainties that are too numerous to mention. Unfortunately, shipping people don’t really have much time for imponderables.

The COP26 event in Glasgow, underway since October 31, provides a venue for industry groups to communicate with political leaders, without intermediation of regulators. Parts of the shipping industry desiring a speedy path to carbon free operation (ideally, completely carbon free by 2050) have been banging loud drums, hoping to get the attention of governments. These, in turn, appoint delegates to the industry’s regulator (yes, the aforementioned “intermediary”), the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

The IMO, in previous strategies, has set a target of getting part of the way towards no carbon emissions (but not completely) by 2050. In the minds of shipping’s progressive wing (represented internationally by the Global Maritime Forum and some others), the IMO needs to be prodded- hard, to speed up its timeframes. COP26 is providing an opportunity for the GMF (and others- including the International Chamber of Shipping, or “ICS”- composed of various industry associations) to get that message in front of top leaders. Hopefully, the word will filter down to the countries’ representatives at the IMO, which has its Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) meeting slated for the days following COP26’s conclusion. 

As the COP26 conference got underway, the U.S. released a paper “THE LONG-TERM STRATEGY OF THE UNITED STATES: Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050”. At the highest level, the White House, in a prepared release, says that: “President Biden is committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions 50-52 percent below 2005 levels in 2030, reaching a 100% carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035, and achieving a net-zero economy by no later than 2050”.

So it is with COP26, many grand plans, but not a lot of specifics for the maritime world. 

The Biden “Pathways” document acknowledges, implicitly and very tangentially, the need for alternative maritime fuels. But it sheds no light on how to produce, and distribute them, at scale. Increasingly, these will be the subjects for shipping folks in Glasgow. The solutions need to encompass the worlds of technology, finance, and good old infrastructure (like how to distribute the fuels).

The ICS- which will be out in force at the COP26 meetings, in a submission for consideration at the upcoming IMO deliberations online (download), has said: “ICS supports increasing the level of ambition in the IMO GHG Strategy, including consideration of setting a target for international shipping to achieve total annual CO2 emissions of net zero by 2050.”

The submission goes on to say: “…with the necessary commitment from governments and all other relevant stakeholders, plus a credible plan for delivery, a net zero carbon ambition could be achievable by 2050. But only provided that the [IMO] takes the necessary decisions to manage this process within a global regulatory framework. If the [IMO] does not adopt the necessary measures, including approval at this session of the IMRF (a fund to research alternative fuels)…, ICS fears that adoption of a net zero goal will be perceived by the World as an empty gesture, damaging confidence in the [IMO’s] leadership on GHG reduction issues.”  

Similar thorny seeds, urging governments to energize the IMO, will be planted at COP26. When it’s time for the IMO’s MEPC meeting (MEPC 77), later in the month, some of the sprouts might just start to emerge, with thorns jabbing delegates towards positive action. But the IMO may not be the only game in town.                 

A new report prepared by consultants UMAS, for the Getting to Zero Coalition (made up of GMF, Friends of Ocean Action, and the World Economic Forum) points to regional regulation, saying: “Regional regulation has advanced significantly this year, with the EU’s formal proposal of a package of policies targeting both domestic and international shipping under its “Fit for 55” package. This development strengthens the perception in the industry that if the IMO regulation does not do enough to drive shipping’s transition, others will.” Indeed, the report details ways that clusters of countries (controlling important cargo trades), rather than regulators, could jumpstart the needed transitions. 

Sidebar

A snapshot of the White House’s “The Long-Term Strategy of the Unite States” report.

In the Administration’s “Pathways” far reaching document, maritime matters are alluded to, but are not central in any way. Importantly, the Net Zero strategy: “… does not include emissions from international aviation or international shipping.” Indeed, electrification, a central tenet of Biden’s broader strategy, is acknowledged to be problematic for aviation and shipping; the suggestion is that: “…we can prioritize clean fuels like carbon-free hydrogen and sustainable biofuels.”

Parsing words closely, “long distance and international shipping” is mentioned as being outside the realm of the strategy, perhaps leaving the electrification (and battery) hatchways open, along with hydrogen fuel cells, for inland and maybe for parts of U.S. coastwise shipping. Of course, there are MUCH broader implications of the Net Zero goals- not readily apparent at this point, as to the demand side of shipping. Fossil fuel cargo trading patterns (think crude oil, clean and dirty products, and petrochemicals, along with coal and petcoke on the dry side) will be altered, but questions of how and when are anybody’s guess. 

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