MEPC 74 meets in May to discuss IMO’s measures to meet its greenhouse gas targets, but is this focus on emissions obscuring the organisation’s competing priorities?
When the United Nations formed the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in 1948 its stated aim was: "To provide machinery for co-operation among governments in the field of governmental regulation and practices relating to technical matters of all kinds affecting shipping... to encourage and facilitate the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation and prevention and control of marine pollution from ships."
The hierarchy of those responsibilities presented to IMO by the UN speak volumes about the mandate: maritime safety, navigation, and then marine pollution. The requirement to fulfil the safety role can never be side-tracked – the sea is unforgiving.
On the second issue of navigation, technology has developed so quickly that there is now significantly more processing power in a smart phone than there was across all the computers on board a tanker just 20 years ago. Alongside the advent of satellites – which themselves are becoming smaller, more powerful and more numerous – this technology has reduced IMO’s scope; so much navigation is now handled automatically, without for need for IMO’s involvement – although there are now new ways for tankers to run aground, from smart-screen confusion to the spoofing of AIS signals in the Black Sea.
“IMO is now accused of setting aside safety in pursuit of more popular emissions concerns”
IMO’s pollution mandate developed from discussions centred on oil spills from tankers, with the Torrey Canyon incident the catalyst for the organisation to ramp up its focus on these matters. Today, a full-scale tanker-related oil spill is a relatively rare event, thanks in no small part to IMO regulations that require tankers to be double-hulled, post Exxon Valdez.
Exxon Valdez, post cataclysmic oil spill (credit: WikiCommons)
That disaster took place 30 years ago, not long after IMO moved to its new headquarters in a prime location on the south bank of the River Thames in London.
IMO is now the size of large global shipping company, with 300 staff in the Secretariat and 174 members which could be likened to joint venture partnerships. It is has become a self-sustaining bureaucracy at a time when is original purpose has arguably shrunk.
Which might explain its emphasis on shipping emissions.
To many, this is a classic case of policy creep, with IMO encroaching on the role of a sister United Nations organisation – the Environment Programme (commonly known as UN Environment), which describes itself as: “The leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system, and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment.”
This is the official UN body where limits on pollution and emissions are discussed and implemented globally, not just on an industry basis. IMO is now accused of setting aside safety in pursuit of more popular emissions concerns.
This theory was expressed at the International Product Tanker Association (IPTA) conference in March 2019, where delegates were informed that faster and more accurate laboratory tests have led to the redefinition of some chemicals listed in the IBC Code. These will move into the more serious 'toxic' category when finalised by IMO on 1 January 2021.
Why so late? The IMO slot that was set for a discussion on the change in the IBC Code – something of direct relevance to the safety of mariners handling these substances – was used to debate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
A matter of priorties
Clearly shipping must play its part in the global effort to reduce GHGs, but there are other forums available for the discussion, while there is only one original forum for discussions around maritime safety.
Slow-steaming is one potential means of reducing shipping GHG emissions that will be presented at the 74th assembly of IMO's Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) in May 2019.
The proposals centre on how shipping will meet the next GHG target set by IMO, to be enacted in 2030. CE Delft transport and mobility manager Jasper Faber had the task of delivering this news to owners and operators at the IPTA conference in London recently.
Some of the proposals are complex, involving tonne-miles sailed versus grams of CO2 produced, but the main takeaway is that of all the methods proposed by the working group, of which CE Delft is a member, can be summed up in two words – slow steaming.
“The IMO slot that was set for a discussion on the change in the IBC Code was used to debate greenhouse gas emissions”
Slow steaming has been a fuel-saving method ever since vessels ditched the commercial sail, and in the dire 1990s, it was not unusual for more than 10% of the tanker fleet to be operating significantly below design speed. The proposals being brought forward to MEPC 74 have a completely different aim: to inject an immediate reduction in emissions that can be achieved within the next decade. The most radical solution is from the French contingent – immediate mandatory slow steaming.
The word “mandatory” is inflammatory when broadcast to an audience of owners and operators, and more than one sought clarification – was this really a proposal to set a limit on speed? One owner even suggested that it was a little bit rich for the French to propose an emissions reduction programme in the wake of President Macron’s failure to raise fuel taxes to tackle pollution from vehicles.
Should one or more of the slow steaming proposals gain traction at MEPC 74, it will bump into phase III of EEDI further down the road, a potential combination of lower power and slower speed.
This would, in theory, reduce the fleet supply (voyages are taking longer, fewer vessels are available for work), which could lead to an increase in freight rates (one of the reasons for slow steaming in the 1990s).
The ‘new’ slow steaming proposal has its merits – it is simplistic and, using AIS, easy to manage. There are more than enough AIS sources and analysis providers to identify vessels and indicate speed and it offers the operational simplicity so lacking in many IMO policies.
A return to simple, digestible policies on safety might be the therapy IMO needs to help shed its excess environmental baggage and re-focus on its core mandate.