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Shipping industry under emissions pressure

Ship owners have taken steps towards reducing carbon emissions and pollution, but pressure is intensifying for the industry to make greater strides in the fight against climate change

The European Commission (EC) has called for renewed efforts to reduce both carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions from maritime transport, following a December report by its Joint Research Centre.

The scale of the shipping industry means maritime transport contributes around 3-5% of man-made CO2 emissions, despite having the lowest ratio of CO2 emissions per tonne-mile of any widespread mode of transport, says the EC. A projected expansion in world trade means emissions could double in the next 40 years from around 1bn tonnes a year – around the same level as Germany's total emissions.

The report, Regulating Air Emissions from Ships, says the sector must also do more to reduce SO2 emissions from marine fuel oil, which has a very high sulphur content. SO2 is a significant cause of air pollution. The report says SO2 emissions could rise by 10-20% over the next two years unless further measures are taken.

Some sea areas around the world already have restrictions on sulphur emissions. In EU ports, ships can only use fuel with a maximum 0.1% sulphur content. Some sea areas, Sulphur Emission Control Areas (Secas), also have restrictions. By 2015, ships under the auspices of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) operating in the Secas covering the Baltic and North Sea will also be required to adhere to the 0.1% limit.

To achieve significant CO2 and air-pollution cuts, technological solutions applied to fuel and engines must be supplemented with market-based options, such as including maritime emissions in a future global emissions-trading scheme, says the report. Given that a global agreement is not on the immediate horizon – despite the improved atmosphere among negotiators at December's Cancun climate change conference – the most likely test bed is the EU, where a proposal to include maritime emissions in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme should be in place in first-quarter 2012.

Potential for GHG reductions

The IMO – the UN agency responsible for environmental and safety issues for shipping – says its own studies show a significant potential for reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions through technical and operational measures, which could increase efficiency and reduce the emissions rate by 25-75%. The IMO's estimates of shipping emissions are below the lower end of the range cited in the EC report. An IMO 2009 study estimated shipping contributed 0.87bn tonnes, or 2.7%, of man-made CO2 emissions in 2007.

The IMO expects to produce more details of how to achieve cuts by mid-2011 and is considering market-based mechanisms that would provide an incentive for fleet owners to invest in energy- and emissions-reducing measures.

The industry wants emissions-reduction measures to be implemented under the IMO's umbrella rather than being ceded to governments. But the view from some EC officials is that the IMO must move more quickly. "To date there has been very limited progress in the IMO towards reducing emissions," the EC says in a roadmap document on its own maritime-emissions proposals.

However, while the EU may be able to take the lead by exerting pressure on the shipping industry using its ports and waters, finding a solution to suit the many interests competing across a disparate and fragmented global market is unlikely to prove straightforward.

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