The International Maritime Organisation oversaw a revised deal on decarbonisation in shipping, but critics feel it is not moving fast enough

The carbon budget of marine shipping is running short. Environmentalists fear the revised plan to decarbonise the industry will not meet the targets. So what would a net zero marine shipping industry look like?
July 21, 2023

The 80th session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee has left environmentalists worried about the possibility of the shipping industry decarbonising fast enough.

A cargo container ship
Source: Unsplash

Ships that travel through our oceans emit as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in one year as the entire country of Germany. Thanks to the enormous shipping sector, nine-tenths of our products travel around the globe. However, it does not yet have a target for "net zero" emissions reduction. A UN summit that began on Monday, 3rd of July, aimed to alter that. Achieving "net zero" would include actively reducing greenhouse gas emissions to balance out any leftover shipping emissions. Some delegates desire that this take place by 2050 and that emissions are cut in half by the year 2030. According to campaigners, this could have been the "deal of the decade" for the environment.[i]

Maritime nations worked throughout the week commencing the 3rd of July on a plan to reduce shipping industry emissions to net zero by 2050, but scientists warn that the agreement falls far short of what is required to avert a global climate catastrophe. Rather than establishing 2050 as a hard deadline, negotiators at the International Maritime Organisation meeting in London formally agreed on a deal at the end of the week that shipping emissions will reach net zero "by or around" 2050. Despite pressure from Pacific nations for more aggressive targets, the draught plan asks for shipping emissions to be reduced by at least 20%, aiming for 30% by 2030 and at least 70% but working towards 80% by 2040. To meet the 1.5℃ temperature goal, experts estimate that the industry must reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 and to zero by 2050. According to environmentalists, the draught proposal would cause the shipping sector to exhaust its carbon budget by 2031, which is the maximum amount of carbon dioxide that different businesses and nations can produce before exceeding global warming limitations.[ii]

According to Faig Abbasov of Transport and Environment, an environmental nongovernmental organisation based in Brussels that is attending the conference in London:

“This week’s climate talks were reminiscent of rearranging the deckchairs on a sinking ship,"
 “The U.N. had the opportunity to set an unambiguous and clear course towards the 1.5 C temperature goal, but all it came up with is a confusing fudge,”[iii]

From within the negotiations, the reaction was more positive, although it was highlighted that the agreement was not an end goal but rather a starting point.  IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said:

"The adoption of the 2023 IMO Greenhouse Gas Strategy is a monumental development for IMO and opens a new chapter towards maritime decarbonization. At the same time, it is not the end goal, it is in many ways a starting point for the work that needs to intensify even more over the years and decades ahead of us. However, with the Revised Strategy that you have now agreed on, we have a clear direction, a common vision, and ambitious targets to guide us to deliver what the world expects from us."[iv]

The direction of legislation beyond the IMO

The EU has taken steps separately from the UN in the pursuit of decarbonising marine shipping by a hard 2050 deadline. Two processes will be key players in the decarbonisation of the maritime industry in the EU. The Emissions Trading System (ETS), which will be implemented for the sea transport industry in 2024, is one. If ships entering EU ports from outside the EU exceed the limit emission value, they will be charged under the ETS. The second mechanism is the upcoming FuelEU Maritime rule, which would require ships above 5,000 tonnes to use ecologically friendly fuels. Eco-friendly ships will receive rewards, and eco-destructive ships will pay fines that will be put towards funding environmental programmes.[v]

Prior to the IMO summit, a carbon tax on shipping was touted at the international finance summit in Paris. More than 20 nations supported a levy on the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the shipping sector. According to a summary of discussions and information provided by a French official, France, Spain, Norway, and Portugal are among the 22 countries that support "the principle of a levy on the GHG emissions" of the international shipping industry. Additionally, the European Commission supports it. Despite being numerous, the two biggest economies in the world, the US and China, are not now on the list of sponsors.[vi]


[i] BBC News- Why shipping faces a showdown over greenhouse gas

[ii] AP News- Nations set to agree on shipping emissions cuts but fall short of aligning with climate goals

[iii] Ibid

[iv] IMO- Revised GHG reduction strategy for global shipping adopted

[v] Delegation of the EU to Türkiye- The maritime industry prepares for the green transformation

[vi] Bloomberg- Carbon Tax for Ships Is Supported by 22 Countries at Paris Summit

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Oscar Pusey
Research Analyst

Oscar is a recent graduate with a background in earth science. He is currently studying an MSc focussing on disaster responses, emergency planning and community resilience. His postgraduate research project will assess the link between climate crisis risk perception and attitudes to green energy projects. “Adapting to the climate crisis through the pursuit of net zero requires community engagement and understanding. Zero Carbon Academy’s goals closely align with this approach and I’m excited to have the opportunity to research and communicate a variety of topics relating to our environment and sustainability”.

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