WHY climate reporters should cover this month’s shipping summit

“The shipping industry is one of the biggest drivers of climate change.

This month the 194 member states of the UN’s International Maritime Organisation are holding virtual talks on how to decarbonise the global shipping industry, with the catchy title “Intersessional Working Group on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships” (October 19-23)

Why should climate reporters cover it? Here are three reasons.

1) Shipping is one of the biggest drivers of climate change.

Largely out of sight on the world’s oceans, shipping emits over 1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year and growing. That’s more than all but the top 5 biggest country polluters.

So objectively, how fast shipping decarbonises matters more for the climate than anything the UK does. Or Germany, Canada, Brazil, or Australia. Yet shipping gets a tiny fraction of the coverage from climate journalists that these countries do. 

2) Lots of secrecy to uncover

Shipowners have largely relocated their businesses to obscure “Flags of Convenience” tax havens, in order to reduce their obligations to society – across tax, labor, and environmental standards. 

Even the regulators of shipping have been less than transparent.

The global shipping industry is regulated by the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO), based in London, UK. But despite being a publicly funded UN agency, Transparency International in 2018 found an insiders club of secrecy, in which non-profits could face expulsion from the IMO if they criticised it.

Meanwhile for-profit ship registries (tax havens) were found to have “undue influence over the policymaking process”: Because the IMO’s funding mechanism is based on how many ships are under a country’s Flag, five small tax-havens – Panama, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, Malta and the Bahamas – have an outsize influence at the body, contributing 43.5% of funding for the organisation from member states.

In response, Australia kick-started a drive to improve transparency at the organisation.

But later that year it emerged that the UK, the Cook Islands, the Marshall Islands, Panama, United Arab Emirates and the United States had attempted to prevent efforts to make the IMO more transparent – submitting a policy document arguing that “further expansion of access to information” about the organisation “could lead to outside influence”.

Presumably they meant the democratic “influence” of their own citizens, on policies supposed to represent them, and be made in their interests.

As well as being a secretive world, full of shady characters and underhand lobbying, shipping also has deep ties to the fossil fuel industry.

3) Shipping underpins global fossil fuel markets

40% of the entire annual cargo of shipping consists of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and liquified natural gas, according to UNCTAD. Shipping is the backbone of the fossil fuel industry, underpinning the cheap global trade in each of these commodities that makes it so hard for renewables to compete. 

Meanwhile ships themselves all currently run on fossil fuel – accounting for 5% of global oil demand, according to the IEA. And as trade grows, the oil majors are relying on this slice of the pie to keep growing for decades to help make up for reduced demand in the road sector as cars go electric.

Shipping is an industry used to operating in the shadows, having its own way, writing its own purposefully weak environmental regulations, and lobbying for the right to continue emitting 1 Billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year into our atmosphere, for free.


The good news? There are now over 30 high ambition countries at IMO who support “Goal-based Operational Efficiency” – which could, if set at the right stringency, cut the sector’s emissions by over 40% by 2030 – preventing up to 90 coal-fired power stations worth of CO2 entering our atmosphere.

That includes key countries from Asia (China), Latin America (Chile), and a core block of Pacific Islands (Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands) and European states (Denmark, Germany, France, Spain).

However, Japan, Norway, and industry lobby groups ICS, BIMCO, and World Shipping Council are leading a counter-charge to limit regulation to just a “technical” scope (i.e. certified on paper only, not based on real world fuel consumption) that is narrowly focused on the ship’s technical parameters. Yes, that is the exact problem with car emissions standards that incentivized cheating and led to the Dieselgate scandal.

The path is being laid right now for the next Dieselgate scandal to happen in the shipping sector. It will just take some tenacious reporting to uncover it.


If we’ve piqued your interest, here are those dates again.

Intersessional Working Group on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships” (October 19-23)

Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 75): Nov 16-20, 2020

And to see who your country’s actual delegates are, check out our handy list.

1 thought on “WHY climate reporters should cover this month’s shipping summit”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.