Opinion: Shipping can tackle climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution head-on

Andrew Dumbrille & Elissama Menezes from maritime solutions organization, Equal Routes discuss the 2030 Shipping Pact for People and Nature (2030 SPPaN) which envisions a future where sustainable shipping practices benefit nature, people, and the planet, overcoming hurdles through partnerships, accountability measures, and a holistic approach to governance. By Andrew Dumbrille & Elissama Menezes, Equal Routes | December 9, 2023

Can you summarize the main goals and strategies of the Navigating the Future report in addressing the interconnected challenges of shipping, biodiversity, and decarbonization?

The report emphasises the need to address the triple planetary threats of pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss in the context of shipping  solutions and impacts. The goal is to not only elevate the dialogue on biodiversity and pollution to the level of climate, but to also show how meeting biodiversity goals can support positive climate outcomes. The report recommends the framing of a new 2030 Shipping Pact For People and Nature (2030 SPPaN), which outlines concrete measures to guide the maritime sector in assessing, reducing, and avoiding its negative impacts on marine biodiversity and climate. If quickly and comprehensively implemented, the Pact could contribute to reversing biodiversity loss and addressing the climate crisis this decade.

How does shipping contribute to biodiversity loss and climate change, and what are the most critical areas of intervention in this sector?

Shipping accounts for nearly 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Black carbon, which has a disproportionate impact in the Arctic, contributes one-fifth of this amount. Shipping is also responsible for 60 to 90% of the introduction of exotic species into new territories. In just one year (2018), an estimated 190 million cubic metres of scrubber wash water was reported to have been discharged from 178 vessels in the Baltic Sea.  Vessel collisions affect at least 75 marine species, including sea turtles, penguins, and seals, while more than 250 million tonnes of sewage and greywater are discharged into the global ocean from shipping. These discharges contain bacteria, microplastics, contaminants, and pathogens. Finally, underwater radiated noise (URN) has doubled in the Arctic over a six-year period, (2013-2019), and between 2014 and 2019, around 90% of oil slicks in the global ocean were located within 160 KM of shorelines, with 21 high-density slick belts coinciding with shipping routes.

Focusing on maritime solutions that have clear co-benefits for climate, pollution, and biodiversity is critical. For instance, air pollution from vessels impacts human health, speeds up global warming, and acidifies the ocean. Therefore, mandating Emission Control Areas (with a Black Carbon threshold) throughout the global ocean can be an effective solution. Similarly, making hull fouling guidelines mandatory can improve the efficiency of ships, resulting in less fuel usage and slowing down the spread of invasive species.

What are the specific decarbonization targets set by the IMO for the shipping industry, and how do they align with the broader goals of climate action?

Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the shipping sector is paramount. The revised IMO strategy mandates the industry to act quickly and decarbonize by 2050. Although the revised strategy is not entirely aligned with the 1.5℃ target, it still puts that goal within reach, with a zero-emission target by 2050 and checkpoints of 30% by 2030 and 80% by 2040. Meeting these targets will require innovation, leadership, and a multidisciplinary approach. The 2030 Shipping Pact for People and Nature (2030 SPPaN) creates a pathway that contributes to meeting these targets. Importantly, it articulates how biodiversity targets need to be adopted, which, if implemented, would support these climate goals.

What are the primary challenges in implementing more sustainable shipping practices, especially in the context of global inequality and the needs of developing countries?

2030 SPPaN establishes four main pillars to help steer efforts, target setting, and mitigation measures in the right direction within the shipping sector: 1) ensuring justice and equity, which involves prioritizing human rights and respecting international agreements such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People; 2) creating a culture of safety, acknowledging that safe shipping is inextricably linked to seafarers’ rights and environmental protection, and often can’t happen without adequate and well maintained port and on ship infrastructure; 3) taking the Precautionary Approach which entails that uncertainty should not be used as a reason for inaction in the face of serious or irreversible damage that may be caused to the environment; and 4) recognizing nature-based solutions, acknowledging the power of the natural world and its complex ecosystems to address and reverse the impacts of climate change. By incorporating these pillars, the shipping industry can work toward more sustainable, just, and equitable practices.

How do international regulations like the UNCBD and the BBNJ contribute to mitigating the negative impacts of shipping on biodiversity and the environment?

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) is a legal framework aiming to conserve and manage at least 30% of terrestrial and inland water areas, as well as of marine and coastal areas, especially those of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services by 2030. The BBNJ (Marine Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction) is a legally binding  global regime to better address the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Shipping activities and impacts play a crucial role in both of these initiatives. It is essential to explicitly link measures aimed at improving biodiversity within the context of the IMO and other national and regional regulatory regimes to meet obligations within BBNJ and UNCBD. Without those explicit links, shipping won’t be able to contribute its fair share on par with its ecological footprint. 2030 SPPaN is envisioned to start making those links, by creating a strategy with time bound targets which will contribute to the goals of both the UNBC and BBNJ.

How are efforts to tackle biodiversity loss in the shipping industry interconnected with the fight against climate change?

Efforts to tackle biodiversity loss in the shipping industry are closely related to the fight against climate change. One example of this connection is the issue of underwater radiated noise (URN), which is a type of acoustic pollution that can harm marine mammals, severely impacting their health and long term survival. This, in turn, impacts food security for people. To solve this problem, reducing the global fleet speed can lead to a decrease in both underwater noise and the risk of ship strikes. Additionally, it can yield a substantial decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making it easier to meet GHG targets. By mandating and encouraging speed reduction and increasing the efficiency of ships, the revised IMO GHG reduction targets of 30% by 2030 can be achieved while also having significant positive biodiversity impacts.

Can you elaborate on the goals and action plans outlined in the 2030 SPPaN, and how it aims to address the triple planetary crisis of climate, pollution, and biodiversity?

2030 SPPaN goals are ambitious and focus on five main action areas to reverse course on biodiversity loss, reduce pollution, and act on climate goals:

1) Slow Down – global speed restrictions of 25% will be implemented to result in reductions in URN, whale strikes, and GHG emissions;

2) Emission Control Areas (ECA) Everywhere – the global ocean will be designated as an ECA (plus a Black Carbon threshold) to reduce air pollution and climate warming, including areas beyond national jurisdiction;

3) Marine protection – will be expanded fourfold, with reforms to ensure significant and lasting protections;

4) Ship Efficiency revamped – improving the CII (Carbon Intensity Indicator) with a more stringent target of 8% improvement per year will swiftly bring down fuel consumption and GHG emissions while reducing spill risks, black carbon emissions, and underwater noise;

5) Eradicating Pollution – marine pollution eradication measures will be implemented, including phasing out scrubber washwater discharges, banning HFO worldwide, implementing mandatory hull fouling measures, and including URN with its own MARPOL Annex. These measuresl all improve biodiversity and human health while preventing economic loss and tackling the climate crisis. A healthy marine environment is more resilient to climate change impacts.

How does the initiative address issues of justice and equity, particularly in relation to vulnerable communities and seafarers’ rights?

    1. A key 2030 SPPaN pillar prioritizes upholding and enhancing the principles of justice and equity, including but not limited to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, promoting gender and LGBTQ+ equality, engaging youth, and eliminating racism. To align with these principles, comprehensive impact assessments that consider economic, social, and environmental impacts should be conducted, and equitable transition frameworks should be established. The initiative also aims to address economic challenges or disadvantages and eliminate modern slavery, debt bondage, enforced work beyond contract expiry, low manning levels resulting in overwork and lack of shore leave, abandonment, and threat of piracy. Pacific Island states have called for a fair and equitable transition within the IMO’s GHG reduction strategy, particularly a carbon levy that allocates a portion of its revenue to vulnerable SIDS and LDCs, to ensure that no one is left behind.

What mechanisms are in place to measure the progress of the shipping industry towards these environmental and sustainability goals, and how is accountability enforced?

  1. The following mechanisms and players can be utilized to measure shipping progress and ensure accountability towards 2030 SPPaN goals:
    1. 1) Regulatory Frameworks: Regulators play a crucial role in mitigating the impacts of shipping, especially in an industry that struggles to meet minimum regulatory standards. Mandatory regulations and measures are necessary for actual and long-lasting change towards sustainable shipping. The IMO, as the global shipping regulator, must be involved in setting new and enhancing the ambition of existing targets to reduce and eliminate GHG emissions, biodiversity loss, and pollution resulting from shipping activity;
    2. 2) Industry Standards and Guidelines: Ports have their own governance and jurisdictional sovereignty and possess the ability to enforce measures to reduce harm within their territories. They are also important players in promoting bunkering and developing climate corridors that facilitate the adoption of renewable marine fuels. Port fee reductions have been used to incentivize operational changes that can have co-benefits for people, the climate, and biodiversity on a scale just as impactful;
    3. 3) Monitoring and Reporting: Owners and operators have played a significant leadership role in moving towards sustainable practices. For instance, Maersk’s pledge to say no to LNG has sent a powerful signal to the global bunkering market to steer clear of this fossil gas. Owners and operators can also play a significant role in meeting climate and biodiversity targets;
    4. 4) Right-holders and Stakeholders Engagement: Indigenous Peoples and community-based stakeholders’ voices have been historically overlooked in shipping policy and regulatory circles. To develop lasting solutions communities must be centred  in nature and climate policies, which could lead to systemic inequalities being overcome;
    5. 5) Penalties and Incentives: Banks and insurers primarily focus on regulatory compliance to underwrite risk. However, the true value of nature is often overlooked when it comes to shipping voyage insurance. Factors such as reducing underwater noise, avoiding whale strikes, engaging with local communities, using less hazardous fuels, and routing around sensitive areas are not considered when calculating premiums or financial incentives for owners and operators. This is a missed opportunity, as loans and financial tools should also consider the cost of biodiversity protection and climate mitigation.

What role do partnerships and stakeholder engagement play in achieving the objectives of the initiative, and who are the key actors involved?

    1. An ecosystem of actors is needed to move ahead on limiting impacts from shipping on nature, people, and climate. The IMO, as the global shipping regulator, must be involved in setting new and enhancing the ambition of existing targets to reduce biodiversity loss and pollution resulting from shipping activity. Following these rules can have a major effect on shipping impacts. However, in many cases, regulatory tools alone are insufficient to deal with the multiple shipping challenges we face. To achieve meaningful change, multiple governance mechanisms must be engaged. This includes corporate leadership, financial tools, state sovereignty, port state enforcement, and Indigenous self-determination. Ports, banks, marine services, shipyards, classification societies, and insurers, among others, have a role to play in the marine sector ecosystem.

Looking ahead, what is the vision for the future of sustainable shipping, and what are the biggest hurdles that need to be overcome to realize this vision?

    1. 2030 SPPaN provides the vision which, if implemented, could significantly begin to address the triple planetary threat of pollution, biodiversity loss, and the climate emergency. Focusing on the co-benefits of actions which feed two birds with one hand so to speak, could go a long way in realizing the ambitious goals of 2030 SPPaN but also addressing the major hurdle of any regulatory, economic, and social barriers which could prevent action.
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