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The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations. It was founded in 1948; since then, the goals of the organization have been clearly outlined: to regulate all non-purely economic matters of merchant shipping at the international level, to reduce and, if possible, prevent marine pollution by ships, and to improve ship safety and maritime safety.

Above all, the protection of the world’s oceans is a priority for the IMO. This was their motto until almost two years ago: “Safer ships and cleaner seas.“After that, it was adapted, but has lost none of its meaning: “Safe, protected and efficient navigation on clean seas.”

An immense challenge - after all, commercial shipping causes more pollutants than air traffic, for example. In times of climate emergency, there is an enormous need for action for the UN organization. However, on 17 June, the IMO dashed all hopes of effective regulation of the industry. She bowed to the pressure of industry and decided only cosmetic measures that were not suitable for protecting the climate.

Fast-growing industry-cumbersome regulator

Shipping accounts for 90 percent of world trade and is responsible for three percent of global CO2 emissions. If shipping were a nation, it would be the sixth largest source of CO2, according to French media. And emissions will continue to rise: by 15 percent by 2030-if the IMO does not take regulatory measures.

The need for action is therefore not only given, but urgent. Nevertheless, the IMO is an organization that is slow to act. Because international maritime trade cannot be regulated by individual nations, it needs the cooperation of the 174 states that belong to the IMO.

Dispute over percentages instead of effective environmental protection

What this means could be observed between 10 and 17 June. On these days, the Committee for the Protection of the Marine Environment (MEPC), the body of the IMO that deals with environmental issues, held a working meeting on the urgent need to drastically reduce emissions from maritime transport.

Even before the meeting, the Marshall Islands proposed a carbon tax as an instrument to reduce greenhouse gases. Instead of accepting the effective regulatory tax, however, the proposal only met with approval from a few member states. The Member States preferred to argue about the percentage that should be saved effectively.

In order to achieve the global climate targets, for example, the European Union, the United States as well as the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu proposed a 22 percent reduction in greenhouse gases and demanded that this reduction be implemented between 2023 and 2030. A group led by China, Brazil and India supported a reduction of 11 percent over the same period.

After a week of bitter debates, the discussions between the member states then led to a puny compromise: maritime transport has to reduce its emissions by only eleven percent between 2023 and 2026, and no target has been formulated for the period between 2027 and 2030. “This is a real failure. This first step towards the decarbonisation of maritime transport is clearly not high enough, “a representative of the IMO delegation of France was quoted as saying on the French online portal “mediapart”.

Environmental protection organisations describe the compromise as a"total disregard for climate science “and a"cosmetic measure”. The goal of global warming set in the Paris Agreement, which must not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius, could never be achieved.

Six years of standstill

It is not the first time that the IMO and the MEPC have been disappointing in protecting the environment and climate. Already in 2018, member states adopted a strategy to reduce the carbon footprint of ships by 40 percent by 2030 compared to 2008; the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions are to be halved by 2050.

However, the Committee for the Protection of the Marine Environment did not manage to adopt a legal framework until autumn 2020, in order to then take “short-term” binding measures from 2023. Two instruments have been negotiated to decarbonise maritime transport. The” Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index (EEXI)”, which gives ships a performance assessment to meet certain efficiency standards.

The second measure is the “Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII)”. This instrument, which evaluates ships on the basis of their CO2 intensity and classifies them into different categories (similar to ratings for electrical appliances or motor vehicles), is intended, among other things, to increase the pressure on ship operators to use only efficient ships. The most polluting cargo ships would have to submit a mandatory list of measures from 2023, without which they would not be allowed to sail. The incentive: The least emitting ships should have to pay less port fees.

These are important initial measures, but they are being implemented far too slowly. A total of almost six years will pass from adoption to implementation. Six years in which rusty and outdated mudslides will continue to pollute the seas and oceans and the rest of the environment undisturbed.

Regulator drowns in lobbying

The slowness of the UN authority has two reasons. First, countries like Singapore, India, Brazil or China have little interest in decarbonizing their fleets. The fleets are essential for their booming economic growth, and refitting or retrofitting the ships is expensive and time - consuming.

Secondly, the International Maritime Organization has long been infiltrated by lobby groups of the shipping industry: they sit in the middle of the UN regulatory authority. This is partly due to historical reasons: The IMO works with a strong connection to technology, which is why it has always consulted shipbuilders or oil companies as consultants. It was clear that these consultants not only provided their expertise, but also pursued their own economic interests. Only recently, when climate and environmental protection became a political issue, more and more political interests have emerged.

Among the organizations that have consultative status with the IMO are, for example, the world Shipowners lobby Bimco; the powerful International Chamber of Shipping (ICS); the Association of Superyacht Builders and various companies that build tankers. Also present is the Association of Oil & Gas Producers, the global forum of the oil industry, which defends the interests of the fossil fuel giants ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron.

The representatives of these multinationals can speak at the meetings according to the member states-and their number far exceeds that of the few accredited NGOs such as WWF or Greenpeace. But it gets worse: the delegations of the individual member states can also include industrialists. For example, one in four delegates on the Committee for the Protection of the Marine Environment comes from the industrial shipping industry.

Act when it’s too late

Furthermore, some states are represented directly by registry companies. In other words, organizations that register ships, assign them to a port and thus subject them to the legal system in force there. Among them, for example, Liberia, the Bahamas and the Marshall Islands. These three countries also include the world’s largest shipping fleets.

The Marshall Islands are “just” an archipelago in the heart of the Pacific with almost 58,000 inhabitants, but 3,700 ships sail under their flag. After the international recognition of its independence, the island state signed an agreement with the US company International Registries Inc.in 1990. to encourage cargo ships to fly its flag through tax incentives.

Despite having a large fleet of ships of their own, the Marshall Islands suddenly submitted the idea of a carbon tax to the other IMO member states in March 2021, to be levied on all international shipping. Starting at $ 100 per tonne, this tax on CO2 emissions from ships should gradually increase every five years, so that by 2050 the use of fossil fuels in shipping would be completely stopped.

Most member states did not listen to the proposal. The proposal has been put on hold. According to the recently adopted work plan of the IMO, this measure is called “medium-term” and could therefore only be developed after 2024.

However, it is significant that one of the hubs of international maritime trade suddenly wishes to impose concrete emission rules on the shipping industry. The reason is simple: because of global warming, sea levels are rising. The 30 atolls that make up the Marshall Islands could already be completely flooded by 2080.

In other words: environmental and climate protection only when you are affected by the negative effects of the climate crisis. However, in many cases it may already be too late.