MEPC 73: The midweek status quo

Two attempts in the past two days to complicate the introduction of the 2020 sulphur cap have not succeeded. Credit: IMO
Two attempts in the past two days to complicate the introduction of the 2020 sulphur cap have not succeeded. Credit: IMO

Steady progress was being made on a range of issues at the 73rd meeting of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 73) as it reached its halfway point on the afternoon of 24 October.

Discussion points at the week-long meeting of IMO member states, representative bodies from the shipping industry, and non-governmental organisations include the next steps to be taken in the IMO strategy on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from ships, issues pertaining to the 2020 sulphur cap, possible improvements to the Ballast Water Management Convention, strengthening of the Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI), measures to combat marine plastic litter, and a ban on carriage of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic.

Agreement on steps to strengthen the EEDI for container ships and general cargo vessels was reached on the afternoon of 24 October. The start date of Phase 3 of the EEDI for these ship categories will be brought forward by three years from 1 January 2025 to 1 January 2022. It was also agreed that the reduction rate in the EEDI in Phase 3 for container ships will be increased from 30–40%. However, a similar proposal to bring forward the Phase 3 start date for large bulkers and tankers did not gain support.

Two attempts in the past two days to complicate the introduction of the 2020 sulphur cap have not succeeded. On 23 October, a proposal to delay the start date of the ban on carriage of non-compliant fuel oil by a ship unless fitted with an exhaust-gas cleaning system (scrubber) was defeated. The intended start date of the ban therefore remains 1 March 2020 and the relevant amendment to MARPOL is expected to be adopted by the end of the week.

Late on 24 October, there was also a conclusion to the previous day’s discussion on a proposal to insert an ‘experience-building phase’ into the implementation of the sulphur cap. There had been media speculation early on Wednesday that this proposal was gaining traction and would be approved. However, since even the sponsors of the proposal had accepted that there was no intention to delay the start of the sulphur cap, set for 1 January 2020, it was not clear to many delegates what the precise purpose of the experience-building phase would be. In the event, it was agreed, by way of a compromise, that further ways of ensuring the smooth working of the sulphur cap, for example by enhancing measures to ensure fuel oil quality and reporting of non-availability of compliant (low-sulphur) fuel oils, could be discussed at the next MEPC meeting in May 2019 (MEPC 74).

Following the breakthrough agreement at MEPC 72 last April on the IMO’s greenhouse gas-emissions strategy, there may have been some expectation that momentum towards decarbonisation of shipping would pick up at this week’s meeting. The goal of the strategy is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050 and pursue efforts to phase them out entirely as soon as possible thereafter. In reality, the main task for IMO members this week in this area has been to agree a follow-up plan of activities to be carried out between now and 2023 to set the strategy in motion. The follow-up plan itself was drawn up at last week’s intercessional working group.

Concrete proposals for short-, medium-, and long-term measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ships are now due to be considered at MEPC 74. To provide a scientific basis to help determine what these measures should be, on 22 October, it was agreed to commission a fourth IMO greenhouse-gas study, the scope of which is being determined at a separate working group this week. The study will calculate the level of emissions from ships for the period 2012–18 and provide projections of future emissions out to 2050. Much discussion has centred on how to ensure that these projections will be rigorously and objectively determined. In conjunction with the study, there will be an assessment of the impact of the greenhouse-gas strategy on IMO member states, particularly less developed countries and those at the end of long shipping routes.

Another working group has been tasked with developing an action plan for dealing with the problem of marine plastic litter from ships, much of it from fishing vessels. Containers lost from ships are another major source of plastic pollution, as well as being a major hazard at sea for smaller vessels. Measures being considered for inclusion in the action plan are the improvement of port reception facilities, imposing obligations on fishing vessels to report abandoned, lost, and discarded fishing gear, marking of fishing gear, and a system for marking and tracking containers and mandatory reporting of containers lost overboard. Proposals to include wastewater, which may include micro-plastics, known as ‘grey water’ in the action plan, may prove more controversial.