Lack of urgency at MEPC 73 raises stakes for next meeting

Focus point: Many items have been shifted to the agenda of MEPC 74, due to be held from 13–17 May 2019.

The jury is out on the extent to which progress was made at the 73rd meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), which ended on 26 October.

Two important decisions were made that should help to facilitate the smooth implementation of the 2020 sulphur cap. But calls by some member states and environmental groups for accelerated action to reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from ships were stifled by demands from other delegations to proceed with caution.

The most blatant example came on 26 October when a provisional agreement, reached after lengthy debate earlier in the week to tighten energy efficiency standards for new container ships, was put on hold to allow for the further gathering of data. The net result was a build-up of issues requiring urgent attention at the next meeting of the committee, MEPC 74, due to be held from 13–17 May 2019.

In his closing remarks on 26 October, International Maritime Organization (IMO) secretary-general Kitack Lim focused on the positives, citing, as the week’s major achievements, the agreement of a five-year timetable (to 2023) of steps needed to realise the IMO’s initial GHG strategy, as well as to the adoption of a carriage ban for non-compliant fuel under the 2020 sulphur cap.

He also warmly welcomed the development of an action plan to tackle the growing problem of marine plastic litter from ships. The committee’s decision not to insert an “experience-building phase” into the sulphur cap was also highly significant to ensure consistent and timely implementation on 1 January 2020 of the new 0.5% sulphur limit.

Nevertheless, there was considerable disappointment among European Union and some other delegations that the decision to strengthen the Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) had been postponed. The main proposal had been to bring forward the start date of Phase III of the EEDI for container ships and general cargo vessels by three years from 1 January 2025 to 1 January 2022 and to increase the required efficiency gain for container ships in Phase III from 30–40% relative to the specified reference line. The reference line represents the average efficiency of ships built between 2000 and 2010. Consideration had also been given to advancing the start date of Phase III for other ship types, particularly large bulkers and tankers.

In the absence on the agenda of other concrete measures to reduce GHG emissions from ships, strengthening of the EEDI was seen by some as a litmus test of the IMO’s commitment to advancing its GHG strategy agreed in April at MEPC 72. Speaking on behalf of the Clean Shipping Coalition (CSC), John Maggs expressed alarm that by postponing the changes to the EEDI, “the IMO was arguably stumbling at the first hurdle”, particularly since the proposed tightened targets for container ships are “undemanding”, he said.

However, while there was general agreement on the need to improve ship efficiency, many delegates opted to jump on the bandwagon of only proceeding once sufficient technical and scientific evidence had been gathered. The intention now is to develop databases of EEDI scores for all, or at least most, ship sizes and segments so that substantive decisions can be made about tightening energy efficiency standards at MEPC 74. Delegates argued that this would still allow plenty of time for bringing Phase III forward to 2022. The concern for Maggs and others is that another excuse to delay will be found at next May’s meeting.

That meeting will also be crucial for the MEPC to consider concrete proposals for other short-, medium-, and long-term measures to reduce GHG emissions from ships in line with the timetable agreed last week. Short-term candidate measures to be considered are likely to include vessel speed reduction, speed, and route optimisation and increasing the use and availability of onshore power in ports.

MEPC 74 is also tasked with developing a procedure for assessing the potential impact of those candidate measures on member states. Additionally, the committee will need to agree the terms of reference for the fourth IMO GHG study, commissioned last week to calculate the levels of GHG emissions from ships for the period of 2012–18 and provide projections of future emissions out to 2050.

Two other matters on last week’s agenda that should receive further attention at MEPC 74 are the proposed ban on heavy fuel oils (HFOs) in Arctic waters and developing measures for dealing with the problem of marine plastic litter from ships.

A group of Inuit elders from Alaska addressed IMO delegates, providing insights into their concerns about the harm an HFO spill would create for their way of life. Their words may help inform the work of the Pollution Prevention Response (PPR) sub-committee in finalising its assessment of the environmental and socio-economic effects of an HFO ban on Arctic communities. The PPR sub-committee is also developing a precise definition of HFO to be used in the terms of a proposed ban.

MEPC 74 will be invited to consider measures put forward in the action plan produced last week by the working group on marine plastic litter from ships. Of all the issues discussed at MEPC 73, the decision to start dealing with plastic litter from ships seems to be the one that gave delegates the most satisfaction. Key ideas include making the IMO Ship Identification Number Scheme mandatory for all fishing vessels that are greater than 24 m in length, mandatory use of the IMO number to mark fishing gear, mandatory reporting of lost containers, and encouraging more effective implementation by member states of their obligation under MARPOL Annex V to provide adequate port reception facilities.