UN Shipping Body IMO Fails On Black Carbon, Lives Up To Reputation For Climate Inaction 

Date: April 11, 2022

A week that opened with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lambasting governments and industry for their climate inaction, and the IPCC’s Climate Mitigation report criticising the poor climate governance of international shipping, is set to close with the UN’s shipping agency, the IMO, again kicking climate concerns into the long grass, by failing to reduce the climate impacts on the Arctic from the black carbon emissions responsible for 20% of shipping’s climate impact, said the Clean Arctic Alliance today [1,2 3].

“The Arctic is melting at an alarming rate, yet the IMO has, once again, failed to act on black carbon,” said James Gamble, Arctic Program Director, Pacific Environment. “This week’s news from the IPCC shows that we cannot afford to wait to cut our ties with fossil fuels. The Arctic has run out of time. Now it’s time to act, and the first step should be to eliminate black carbon emissions from shipping.”

Ahead of the meeting of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Pollution Prevention and Response sub-committee PPR 9, which ends on Friday, April 8th, the Clean Arctic Alliance called on the IMO’s member states to slash the impact of black carbon emissions on the Arctic by developing a mandatory regulation requiring a switch to distillate or alternative cleaner fuels or methods of propulsion for vessels operating in or near Arctic water, and to start work to agree a fuel standard that would reduce black carbon from shipping globally [4,5,6,7].

“The IMO has this week completely failed to take any significant steps or agree any action which would see significant reductions in black carbon emissions from shipping and its warming impact on the Arctic – despite our calls for immediate and deep emission cuts”, said Dr Sian Prior, Lead Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, a coalition of 20 non-profit organisations working to persuade governments to take action to protect the Arctic, its wildlife and its people.

“Instead, and despite the urgent calls from the UN Secretary General, the IMO has wasted the past week agreeing to terms of reference that will result in the development of non-binding recommendatory guidance, without prioritisation of actual measures that would guarantee black carbon emission reductions.”

“During PPR 9, the IMO failed to reach agreement on even the simplest of mandatory measures – a switch to cleaner fuels for ships in the Arctic – which would have seen an immediate reduction in black carbon emissions of around 40% [8]. The IMO’s Arctic nations must take the lead, by putting an end to its culture of prevarication and procrastination, by starting today to support and enforce the reduction of black carbon emissions from ships”, she added.

“Climate scientists warn that we are already perilously close to tipping points that could lead to cascading and irreversible climate impacts. But, high‑emitting Governments and corporations are not just turning a blind eye, they are adding fuel to the flames”, said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, during a speech to mark the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III 6th Assessment Report on Climate Mitigation, on April 4th [9,10].

In March 2022, temperatures in the Arctic were recorded at 30 degrees Celsius above normal levels for the time of year [11]. With the Arctic warming at three times faster than the planet as a whole, the impacts will undoubtedly have serious repercussions further south.

“The Arctic is warming nearly 4 times faster than the rest of the planet and is in peril of disappearing in our children’s lifetimes. This will mean terrible consequences for our planet,” said Gamble. “A first, best hope to save the Arctic is to eliminate black carbon emissions from shipping, and yet, after more than a decade of discussion, the IMO has once again failed to act. The shipping industry must be compelled to immediately take the simple steps necessary to eliminate black carbon emissions, and continue on a path to completely decarbonize shipping.”

When black carbon, a short-lived climate-forcer responsible for around 20% of shipping’s climate impact (on a 20 year basis), is emitted from the exhausts of ships and settles onto snow and ice, it accelerates melting and the loss of reflectivity – the albedo effect – which creates a feedback loop that further exacerbates local and global heating. Learn more about black carbon here [12].

“We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5°C limit agreed in Paris. Some Government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic. This is a climate emergency”, said Guterres during his April 4th speech.

“This week, the IPCC urgently called for immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors – and that includes shipping – and in response the IMO has supported a ‘balanced approach’, which sound like bywords for inaction”, added Prior. “If ‘balance’ refers to the shipping industry’s desire to continue using the heaviest, dirtiest fuels while installing scrubbers, discharging scrubber wastewater into the oceans, and emitting black carbon, then, as the UN Secretary-General said, then they are lying about taking action, and must be counted amongst the ‘dangerous radicals’ he spoke of on April 4th”.

During PPR 9, instead of agreeing to regulate the shipping industry to move to cleaner fuels and methods of propulsion to reduce black carbon emissions, the IMO agreed to develop recommendations on goal-based guidance (i.e. a goal is agreed but everyone is allowed to decide for themselves on how to achieve the goal).

The IMO has thus delegated responsibility to individual countries to decide whether or not to act on the guidance. While increasing numbers of countries supported the need to regulate black carbon emissions, many countries argued that it is still too soon for mandatory measures – despite the IMO being tasked 11 years ago with identifying measures to reduce them. PPR 9 also considered guidance on how to operationalise ongoing scrubber pollution of the oceans – which allows the ongoing use of the heaviest, dirtiest fuels associated with high emissions of black carbon.

“We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming,” said IPCC Working Group III Co-Chair Hoesung Lee, during the Climate Mitigation Report launch [13].

“For too long, the IMO has been out of step with other UN agencies on climate change and is in effect acting as a rogue element within the UN system. The time for this nonsense is over – the IMO must face up to its responsibilities, putting its priorities in line with the UN on climate change, and use the collective political power and technological knowhow of the shipping industry to not only drastically limit shipping’s contribution to the global climate crisis but also to show leadership through decarbonisation of the industry,” concluded Prior.