Speed is of the essence as IMO member states consider short-term measures to reduce carbon emissions, writes Gavin Lipsith
As IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) prepares to meet on 13-17 May, delegations must decide which short-term measures for greenhouse gas emissions reduction they will support. In more ways than one, time is of the essence.
Two measures will be among those considered. The first, backed by an open letter to IMO signed by more than 100 shipowners earlier this week, suggests the use of mandatory, annually calculated average speed limits. The second calls for a ship-specific plan that sets energy efficiency targets – compatible with the IMO target of reducing greenhouse emissions by at least 40% by 2030 (compared to 2008 figures) – but leaves it to shipowners and operators about how best to achieve them.
There are merits in both policies, but only one will encourage the innovation needed to reach the industry goal of total decarbonisation.
Imposing speed limits on shipping (by ship type) – as recommended in proposals by France and Greece - can be done immediately and monitored simply, with a clear emissions benefit. Slow steaming since 2008 has clearly led to less fuel being burned and less CO2 emitted.
There is also a tasty market incentive. Slower ships would reduce the amount of cargo the current fleet can carry, reducing overcapacity issues and positively affecting shipowners’ revenues. It would also eventually stimulate faster growth in shipbuilding.
But slowing down may not be the sure thing it sounds. First, if most ships are already slow steaming, then there is little additional improvement in emissions to be found. It would simply lock in the efficiencies that are already being made. Shipping needs something more ambitious.
There is also a hidden carbon cost, associated with the building of more ships to meet excess demand caused by a speed limit. The building of these ships is not counted in IMO’s emission targets for the same reason ‘well-to-wake’ emissions of fuels are not accounted for – emissions from land-based activities such as shipbuilding and fuel production are covered and counted by other UN bodies. But the emissions generated by more ships at sea could quickly counteract any benefit from a speed limit.
Finally, there is an objection in principle. Speed limits are strictly limited in the extent to which they can assist decarbonisation. New fuels, tools, technologies and techniques must be deployed at some stage to reach the total elimination of emissions. Reducing speed might stop owners from considering these. Shipping should be thinking fast rather than moving slow.
The measure proposed by (among others) Denmark, Germany and Spain would encourage such innovation. It proposes a goal-based, per-ship approach to emissions reduction targeting, covering existing ships as well as newbuilds (which are already regulated for under the Energy Efficiency Design Index). Owners are free to implement the measures they want – including slow steaming – to meet the target. It is easy to see how this would encourage owners to look to new technologies. The scheme could also easily be ramped up to meet further stages of decarbonisation.
But the reference to EEDI is a clue that such a scheme would not be simple to define or implement – MEPC is still wrangling over how EEDI can be fairly applied to some ship types, let alone more complicated implications such as its impact on powering in adverse conditions. A similar quagmire of regulation would not be welcome.
For short-term measures, speed of implementation is crucial. But ship speed must not be the only solution.