IMO Agrees to Nonbinding Target to Achieve Net Zero "Around 2050"

IMO flags and London skyline
Courtesy IMO

Published Jul 6, 2023 3:40 PM by The Maritime Executive

IMO member states have reached a tentative deal on the thorny question of bringing shipping into line with the Paris Agreement. The newly-agreed MEPC climate roadmap calls for reaching net-zero emissions "by or around, i.e. close to, 2050." 

IMO and the shipping industry negotiated an exception from the landmark 2016 climate agreement, on condition that emissions would be regulated by IMO. Along with aviation, shipping is one of only two sectors in the world not subject to national-level Paris pledges. The nature of the IMO's climate regulation has been a matter of constant debate over the intervening nine years. The deal announced Thursday begins to resolve that question, and it includes elements of proposals from NGOs, developing nations and climate action opponents - like China, which has pushed for greater flexibility on the target date and less ambitious emissions policies. 

The specific targets in the agreement include a 20 percent cut in emissions by 2030 and a much deeper 70 percent cut by 2040 (relative to 2008 levels). The first goalpost would be broadly achievable with proven interventions like slow steaming, just-in-time arrival, technical efficiency upgrades, and add-ons like rotor sails. The 2040 target would require deeper changes to shipping's fuel supply.

The agreement falls short of the objectives of clean-shipping NGOs, like the Clean Shipping Coalition, Transport & Environment and the Ocean Conservancy, but it is also far more advanced than the previous IMO "ambition" of a 50 percent cut by 2050.

Still, the targets are nonbinding, like the previously-agreed version, and the text calls for compliance only when “national circumstances allow." Some environmental advocates panned the agreement as a failure and called for national- and regional-level action to bypass IMO. 

"The IMO had the opportunity to set an unambiguous and clear course towards the 1.5ºC temperature goal, but all it came up with is a wishy-washy compromise. Fortunately, states like the US, UK and the EU don’t have to wait for China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia to act," said Faig Abbasov, the shipping program director at T&E.

Some of the nation-state advocates for emissions cuts were less disappointed. The targets would reportedly have been even lower if MEPC delegates had not given extra weight to the interests of small Pacific island nations, which are already feeling the impact of sea level rise. 

“This important step would not have been possible without unwavering Pacific leadership, as well as profound solidarity from countries all over the world,” said Marshall Islands negotiator Albon Ishoda, a longtime proponent of more stringent emissions policies. 

Beyond the symbolic emissions targets, MEPC will also advance discussion of one of decarbonization advocates' top policy priorities - a carbon levy. Over strong opposition from China, the IMO will move forward consideration of carbon pricing as an "economic measure" for debate at upcoming MEPC meetings. 

"Ultimately, it’s the measures the organization takes to implement the strategy, such as GHG intensity standards for ships and fuels, as well as economic measures, that will determine how much international shipping contributes to future warming. Strong measures can steer the sector closer to 1.5°C alignment, but weak measures that fail to bend shipping’s emissions curve could mean exhausting the well below 2°C carbon budget by the late 2030s," said Dr. Bryan Comer, Marine Program Lead, International Council on Clean Transportation.