Page last updated at 16:59 GMT, Tuesday, 14 July 2009 17:59 UK

Harrabin's Notebook: Shipping carbon

In a new column, the BBC's Environment Analyst Roger Harrabin draws on his experience of a quarter of a century reporting the environment to ask if the shipping industry will produce the cuts in greenhouse gases now being requesting.

Dog whelks (SPL)

Can gender-bent shellfish help us predict how the shipping industry will react to the challenge of climate change?

It was 24 years ago that I heard that an anti-fouling compound, Tributyltin, was causing female dog whelks to grow penises.

I went to Cornwall to hear scientists' fears about the effects of TBT on the entire eco-system. It seemed screamingly obvious that TBT must be banned.

The International Maritime Organisation eventually took that view. But its new anti-fouling convention drifted in the Doldrums and was only ratified by a critical mass of states in 2008… that was 23 years after TBT hit the news.

It doesn't fill you with confidence about the industry's level of concern for the environment in which it makes its money. And it doesn't particularly bode well for talks at the IMO this week on an agreement for shipping to cut its growing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Other portents are similarly unpropitious. When the US mandated the use of double-hulled tankers to stop oil spills, sections of the industry fired a salvo of scare stories warning that they would go out of business because of the extra cost.

The standards were later promoted globally and the coastlines of the world are safer for it. It appears not to have materially harmed shipping's bottom line.

Invasive creatures

Alien species in ballast water are another huge problem. Larvae and eggs sucked up in ballast water can become invasive pests when they're discharged thousands of miles away.

The zebra mussel from the Black Sea has invaded American waters, out-competing native mussels, fouling ships, clogging ditches and water intakes. In Europe, the Chinese mitten crab is a menace.

Ships at dock (AP)
Progressive companies see that tighter rules would help their business

The IMO's ballast water convention addresses the problem - but scientists doubt it is a full solution, and there will be plenty of marine cowboys who defy it. Is this a case of closing the stable door after the zebra has bolted?

In ports, local air pollution is regularly way above legal limits, thanks to emissions from ships burning dirty bunker fuel. The IMO says pollution is improving - but progress isn't fast enough for people with asthma living near ports.

Changing shipping's polices on climate change has been like turning a super-tanker. Emissions from international shipping were left out of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol after it proved too difficult to get an agreement but the problem was recognised, and responsibility handed to the IMO to work out a solution.

But since 1990 - the Kyoto baseline year - global shipping's emissions have risen by 85% (Second IMO GHG Study 2009). International shipping now emits 870 million tonnes of CO2 each year - more than the UK's entire economy.

Profit potential

Green groups want tough mandatory design efficiency-standards for new ships to reduce emissions by up to 50%; mandatory operational standards - such as reducing speeds and optimising routes; and an international levy on maritime fuel, with the funds used for adaptation to climate change in developing countries.

Some key nations are supporting the proposals - and progressive shipping firms and ship designers can see that tighter rules would help their business. But the idea of a levy which would put up shipping costs rather than reducing them has drawn a predictable level of opposition from the owners of older ships in poorer countries. And a decision on this will almost certainly be delayed until the IMO's full meeting in the autumn, just before the Copenhagen climate conference.

This is utterly predictable - no industry wants extra costs imposed upon it. And every UN meeting with member countries at different stages of development finds it hard to agree.

In many ways, the IMO climate debate is a microcosm of the broad debate that will unfold at Copenhagen. Based on past experience of the pace of environmental action in the shipping industry it wouldn't be wise to hold your breath for an outcome that scientists would deem sufficient.

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