COP26: Will summit’s ambitions for shipping translate to progress at IMO?


More than 60 countries used COP26 to send a clear signal that now is the time to raise climate ambition at the IMO. Corporate collaboration and the active involvement of governments and regulators—not least the International Maritime Organization—is the key to making zero-emission shipping commercially viable at scale.

After having spent a large part of the past two weeks at COP26 in Glasgow attending an impressive number of maritime related events, walking many miles, and getting too little sleep, the question remains: Will all the sound and fury in Glasgow come to anything for shipping decarbonisation?

Shipping represents 3% of global emissions, and as the backbone of international trade, it will be impossible to achieve 1.5°C and decarbonise the global economy without decarbonising shipping. The time to act is now.

This was the pitch that maritime stakeholders brought to Glasgow — a reflection on the significant work that has been undertaken since the adoption of the Initial International Maritime Organization Greenhouse Gas strategy in 2018 to understand what is needed to decarbonise international shipping.

Full value-chain collaboration and the active involvement of governments and regulators — not least the IMO — is the key to making zero-emission shipping commercially viable at scale and ensuring that the transition to zero-emission shipping is just and equitable.

Companies and governments making commitments are accountable, not only to their peers and the non-governmental organisations at COP26, but also to the youth in the streets and to the many around the world who do not have a voice.

The emerging consensus on what is needed to decarbonise shipping led to a crescendo of private sector announcements in the run-up to COP26, which helped set the scene.

During the UN General Assembly in September, the Call to Action for Shipping Decarbonisation was launched and today counts more than 200 signatories.

It calls on governments to set a zero-emission target for international shipping by 2050, urges them to work with the private sector to create industrial-scale demonstration projects, and calls for the adoption of policy measures that will support the commercial deployment of zero-emission vessels and fuels.

Earlier this year, the Getting to Zero Coalition, UMAS, and the UN High-Level Climate Champions set a 2030 breakthrough target of 5% of international shipping fuels to be zero carbon.

These messages were echoed by industry associations, including the International Chamber of Shipping and Intercargo, which have called for a 2050 net-zero target and the adoption of a carbon levy at the IMO, as well as the International Transport Workers’ Federation, which added the voice of seafarers to those calling for the full decarbonisation of shipping.

Shipowners, including Maersk and Euronav, have already ordered zero-emission vessels and zero-emission-ready vessels for delivery in 2024. Investors, insurers, and banks have also increased their climate ambition. Many have committed to have net-zero portfolios by 2050, which ups the ante on all sectors, including shipping, to fully decarbonise by 2050. The Poseidon Principles espoused by banks, for instance, have stated that they will align with a full zero trajectory in 2022.

Global cargo owners also lent their weight in the run-up to COP26, as leading container customers including Amazon, Unilever and Ikea launched the Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels initiative with a commitment to only use zero emission shipping by 2040.

With those clear commitments and actions from maritime stakeholders, we came to COP26 with one burning question: Would governments respond positively and match non-state actor ambitions and actions?

Judging from the government announcements at the highest level at COP26, the answer is a cautious ‘yes’.

On November 1, 14 governments, including both developed and developing countries, launched the Declaration on Zero Emission Shipping by 2050, in which they pledged to work at the IMO to establish target of zero in 2050 for international shipping.

The declaration was launched by the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and the US Special Envoy John Kerry as well as Minister Bruce Bilimon of the Marshall Islands, sending a clear signal that shipping decarbonisation is no longer just the responsibility of transport ministers.

It was matched by 55 developing country members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which on November 2 issued the Dhaka-Glasgow Declaration, including a call for further urgent discussion, study and work related to the IMO for establishing a mandatory GHG levy on international shipping to ensure that IMO emission measures are fully aligned with a 1.5ºC pathway.

In other words, this means that more than 60 countries used COP26 to send a clear signal that now is the time to raise climate ambition at the IMO.

On the demand side, the First Movers Coalition for hard-to-abate sectors was launched by US President Joe Biden. Cargo owners partaking in this initiative are committing to shipping 10% of their cargo using zero-emission fuels by 2030, and shipowners and charterers are committing to 5% of their fuel use to be zero-emission by 2030. This sends a strong demand signal for zero-emission shipping and fuels this decade — crucial for the early deployment of zero-emission vessels.

The early deployment of zero emission vessels also got another boost at COP26 with the launch of the Clydebank Declaration on “Transport Day” on November 10, in which 22 countries from six continents committed to work together to establish green shipping corridors between ports in their countries.

Mission Innovation, which aims to have zero-emission fuels powering at least 5% of the global deepsea fleet by 2030, showcased its innovation gap analysis and roadmap to 2030 with a call for other countries and the private sector to join.

An equitable and just transition is part of—and necessary for—any solution. The Just Transition Maritime Task Force was launched to support millions of seafarers through shipping’s green transition, protecting workers and focusing on the development of new green skills as we transition to zero, bringing together the ICS, the ITF, the UNGC, the IMO and the International Labour Organisation.

These initiatives, with an open invitation for others to engage, are a key step towards establishing industrial-scale zero-emission shipping projects. They collectively demonstrate that a multi-level, public-private transition is happening, which means that action can be taken now, even as IMO policymaking moves within its necessary timeframe.

So, from a maritime decarbonisation perspective, the build-up and the outcomes of COP26 are impressive.

As we all know, setting bold targets is a lot easier than delivering them.

The key question is will the countries that have been shipping climate heroes at COP26 be shipping climate heroes at IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee 77 in just a week’s time?

Based on our conversations with COP26 participants, we are optimistic. We have a real opportunity to put international shipping on the path to full and equitable decarbonisation by 2050 and achieve the 2030 target of 5%.

We have no time to lose, and we need to continue to send the signal that the private sector is willing and able to keep up with the science. The time to act is now.

Johannah Christensen is chief executive officer of the Global Maritime Forum. Katharine Palmer is the UN's high-level climate champion’s shipping lead.

This Insight brief was originally published as a Lloyd List op-ed on November 12, 2021, and can be accessed here.