While IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee grabs the headlines, shipping has yet to play any role in drafting a new international treaty that could redefine how we use the oceans.
Drafting of a new legally binding amendment to the UN Law of the Sea, on Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), is due to be completed next year. Although the text remains vague, halfway as it is through a series of four drafting conferences, the main area of focus is clear: where there is biodiversity that can be exploited, it must also be protected.
Such measures will require environmental impact assessments and area-based management tools, including creating protected areas. Other areas of focus for BBNJ include cataloguing marine genetic resources and sharing capabilities to profit from them (so that smaller states do not lose out). But for shipping, it is those impact assessments and protected areas that should trigger alarms.
There is little doubt that impact assessments will place an emphasis on the potential pollution to, and disturbance of, marine life. Shipping is no stranger to regulation in this regard via IMO, but with BBNJ, the onus will rest with individual states to regulate the companies under their jurisdiction. Proving, reporting and monitoring compliance with any new requirements on a country-by-country basis will be a new burden for shipowners and operators. So too will having to avoid protected areas of the ocean or having to adopt new operating procedures for passing through them.
Any new burden posed by BBNJ will be a continuation of the trend for tighter environmental control, something which shipping is already familiar with. Perhaps shipping should therefore embrace BBNJ, as it has (to varying extents) embraced IMO’s target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, considering it another step towards a sustainable industry.
It is imperative however that shipping contributes at the drafting stage. At CMA Shipping in April, World Oceans Forum chief executive Paul Holthus despaired of the lack of engagement shipping had shown in the process so far. Leaving representation just to associations is not an option, he said; only by participating can shipowners guarantee that their own concerns are heard before it is too late.
The legislation comes at a time when ocean industries are expanding rapidly, from deepsea mining to offshore aquaculture and even carbon capture under the seabed. Such new opportunities require new vessels, new types of vessel and new ship technology. And tighter regulation will mean that demand for environmentally friendly shipping solutions also grows – good news for technology suppliers, perhaps less so for some shipowners. But in order to take effective and sustainable opportunity of the ocean’s potential, shipping and other sectors must be vocal about how it is regulated.