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A shipping emissions showdown stands in the way of one of the biggest climate deals of the decade

Delegates of the International Maritime Organization are meeting in London this week for preliminary talks on how to implement a new greenhouse gas strategy.

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In the face of a colossal and growing source of emissions, the U.N. shipping agency is looking to slash pollution from the world’s ocean-going vessels by adopting new climate targets.

Observers of next week’s talks say the summit’s success depends on the pace of those cuts, however.

Delegates of the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. agency responsible for preventing shipping pollution, are meeting in London this week for preliminary talks on how to implement a new greenhouse gas strategy.

The meeting is designed to help build consensus among the group’s 175 member states ahead of a crucial session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee from July 3-7.

The IMO is expected to update its current target of halving shipping emissions by 2050, from 2008 levels, but many are concerned about the maritime regulator’s appetite to embrace interim targets.

It comes as the U.N. agency is under pressure to urgently halve greenhouse gas emissions from ships by the end of the decade and commit to reaching zero emissions by 2040.

There is a lot of outside pressure pushing on the IMO because it is the climate negotiation of the summer.

Aoife O’Leary

CEO of Opportunity Green

John Maggs, president of the Clean Shipping Coalition and senior policy advisor at the Seas at Risk environmental NGO, said if the IMO could agree to a deal that was close to the science-based targets for 2030, “you would quite genuinely have a climate agreement not just of the year but probably the decade.”

Typically, however, Maggs told CNBC that the shipping sector had been “extremely reluctant” to adopt ambitious climate measures.

To be sure, the world’s ocean-going vessels account for around 3% of global carbon emissions, an amount comparable to major polluting countries.

The sector, which transports more than 90% of global trade, is also regarded as one of the hardest industries to decarbonize, due in part to the vast amounts of dirty fossil fuels the ships burn each year.

The shipping sector, which transports around 90% of global trade, is regarded as one of the hardest industries to decarbonize, due in part to the vast amounts of dirty fossil fuels the ships burn each year.

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If stringent abatement measures are not implemented, the IMO has warned that shipping emissions could jump by up to 50% by mid-century.

“It is now time to work together on increasing the level of ambition for 2050 and establish the intermediate check points by 2030 and 2040,” IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said in a speech to delegates earlier this week.

“Do not wait for the last minute at MEPC to make the compromises and find the solutions, a positive outcome from this group is key to a success next week, and for the future work of this Organization,” Lim said.

He described 2023 as the “IMO’s year of decisive climate action.”

‘The usual suspects’

To meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature threshold set by the landmark Paris Agreement, the shipping regulator must commit to a 36% decarbonization target by 2030 and a 96% target by 2040, according to the Science Based Targets initiative.

A course correction to a Paris-aligned pathway, however, is not the base-case scenario among IMO observers.

The 1.5 degrees Celsius goal is recognized as a crucial global target because beyond this level, so-called tipping points become more likely. Tipping points are thresholds at which small changes can lead to dramatic shifts in Earth’s entire life support system.

The world’s ocean-going vessels account for around 3% of global carbon emissions, an amount comparable to major polluting countries such as Germany.

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Asked which delegates were likely to seek to block calls for tougher climate targets, Maggs replied, “I think there are, of course, the usual suspects. Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates — it will be very difficult to persuade them.”

“But there is also a group of big developing countries, like Argentina, Brazil [and] India, who are kind of onside for the 2050 stuff now, but they are very, very concerned about their export market,” he added.

The International Chamber of Shipping, an influential industry group that represents over 80% of the world’s merchant fleet, has previously warned that shippers should tread carefully when considering deals to eliminate their contribution to the climate crisis.

A confidential document obtained by the Associated Press in May showed the ICS had advised its national branches that member companies should “give careful consideration to the possible implications” before signing up for new targets.

CNBC has contacted the ICS to request comment ahead of next week’s talks. The group said in February that it reaffirms the industry’s commitment to meet 2050 net-zero carbon goals.

‘All eyes on the interim targets’

Aoife O’Leary, CEO of non-profit Opportunity Green and an observer at IMO, said countries will likely agree to a strategy revision of zero emissions by 2050 but whether a deal can be reached on more immediate targets will ultimately determine the success of the talks.

“Bringing emissions down immediately and quite drastically is what is needed — and that is just much more controversial because then countries see that they have to do actually do something,” O’Leary told CNBC via telephone.

“It might be that what happens in the end is that everyone is so unhappy with the interim targets that none get agreed on at all,” she added.

“It’s really difficult to say how it will play out. There are a lot of interests pushing for different things. There is a lot of outside pressure pushing on the IMO because it is the climate negotiation of the summer.”

Faig Abbasov, director of shipping at campaign group Transport & Environment, told CNBC that the political pressure ahead of the summit had been immense. As a result, countries will have to agree to a deal of some kind. “All eyes are on the interim targets,” he added.

A failure at the technical talks this week, Abbasov warned, would likely cannibalize next week’s negotiations.

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