Published online 17 July 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.704
Corrected online: 20 July 2009

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Climate targets for ships deferred

Nations agree to cut some pollutants but not carbon dioxide.

ShipCleaner ships in future.Alamy

This week's meeting of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the London-based UN body that governs global shipping industry treaties, failed to set controls on greenhouse-gas emissions. But environmental groups have welcomed steps agreed to control other forms of pollution from ocean-going ships bound for North America.

The proposal from Canada and the United States would control oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and sulphur (SOx), and particulate matter within a 320-kilometre boundary zone around the continent. If they're formally adopted by the IMO, the restrictions could limit the growth of NOx emissions after 2016, as older vessels are retired and new ships with greater emissions controls are launched. The required cuts to SOx~ and particulate matter would come from a steady shift to using low-sulphur fuels.

According to the Clean Air Task Force, a US non-profit organization based in Boston, Massachusetts, ocean-going ships are responsible for 10% of total global sulphur dioxide emissions. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that switching to low-sulphur fuels could save nearly 10,000 lives on North American shores in 2020 because of reductions in particulate matter alone.

Even ships that are registered in countries not party to the IMO agreement would have to comply with the pollutant controls so that they can enter Canadian and US ports. That could create a global market for low-sulphur fuels and other emissions-controls technologies.

Carbon failure

David Marshall of the Clean Air Task Force, welcomes the move to establish this large "emission control area". He believes the IMO is likely to formally adopt the proposal at the next meeting of its Marine Environment Protection Committee in 2010. But at this week's meeting, the IMO "delegates seem to be at loggerheads" over greenhouse-gas emissions controls, says Marshall, who attended as an observer. International shipping was responsible for about 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2008 — a little higher than Germany, the sixth largest emitter in the world.

Countries such as China and Saudi Arabia agreed to discuss only the technical formulas that could eventually benchmark future shipping emissions through an IMO treaty; talk of binding agreements to control greenhouse-gas emissions were quashed. These nations argue that restrictions on emissions will have serious economic consequences for developing nations. Discussions on kerbing the industry's emissions may now take place in Copenhagen in December, when countries will meet to discuss a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on combating climate change.

Future agreement?

The failure to agree on carbon cuts has drawn criticism from environmental groups. "It's absolutely necessary in our view to get emissions reductions from the shipping sector," says Marshall. "[This IMO meeting] didn't really resolve anything."

But the shipping industry says that current difficulties do not mean there will be no agreement in the future.

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"The fact that the IMO cannot come to such agreement this year doesn't mean in any way that it's somehow hopeless," says Bryan Wood-Thomas, vice-president for environmental policy at the World Shipping Council, a trade group that represents about 90% of the cargo-container shipping industry. "Quite to the contrary, I think it will arrive at an agreement in the next year and a half," he says — once countries assess whether the results of the Copenhagen meeting change the context of the IMO's climate negotiations. Wood-Thomas says that the shipping sector on the whole supports an IMO agreement on greenhouse-gas emissions controls, even if the industry is not in consensus over how to do it — whether by cap-and-trade or other mechanisms.

The European Commission has signalled its intent to impose regulations on the shipping sector if the IMO doesn't do so. European Union member nations and the European Parliament have floated 2013 as their target year for having shipping emissions controls in place. That leaves some time for further IMO negotiations, says Mark Major, the European Commission's director general for the environment. But "it's not looking very promising [that the IMO] will come to agreed rules in the near future," Major says, after observing the week's discussions. 

Corrected:

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the restrictions could lead to the phasing out of ships that emit NOx by 2020. The IMO rules require that after 2016, new ships traveling to restricted emissions zones must reduce NOx emissions by 80%.
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