The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is a UN body comprising 174 member states, tasked to improve the safety and security of international shipping and prevent pollution from ships. It’s made up of 5 main committees and several sub-committees. One of these – the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) – holds its MEPC75 summit this week, hosted virtually from the IMO HQ at Albert Embankment in London.

On Sunday evening, Ocean Rebellion staged a dramatic protest outside the London headquarters at Albert Embankment, setting fire to a boat to symbolise the Paris Climate Agreement going up in smoke.

The MEPC meets every nine months to discuss a variety of issues such as marine air pollution, creation of protected marine zones, preparedness for oil spillage response and steps to cut greenhouse emissions. Way back in 1997, it was agreed as part of the Kyoto Protocol that the IMO should provide the global regulatory framework to cut marine greenhouse gas emissions, but progress has been very slow.

Global shipping emits around 2-3% of all greenhouse gases, roughly equivalent to a country the size of Germany, and double that of the UK, but as other sectors are set to reduce emissions, this proportion will rise. Because shipping (like aviation) is regarded as international, it was effectively excluded from the historic 2015 Paris Agreement, which only dealt with national pledges.

Despite this exclusion, in 2018, after a representative from the Pacific Marshall Islands opened the IMO conference with their plea for survival,  there followed an ‘historic’ announcement that real progress had been achieved in what was called an “initial strategy”. 100 countries agreed a commitment of at least 50% reduction in marine emissions by 2050, and to begin reducing emissions “as soon as possible”. The agreement also committed to a reduction of 40% in the ‘carbon intensity’ of the fleet by 2030, (carbon intensity is the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of transport work), to be achieved through stringent new efficiency requirements. NGOs greeted the announcement with some cautious praise as a step in the right direction.

At the most recent IMO meeting last month though, it seems much of that agreement was thrown out by a text known as J/5.rev1, which dilutes energy efficiency targets for shipping, and effectively allows ships in the lowest efficiency bands to continue operating for a further 3 years without even submitting improvement plans, and after that, they can STILL operate without any legal penalty.

If J/5.rev1 is ratified at this week’s summit, then “as soon as possible” will have been abandoned, there will be no emission reduction before 2023 and Paris Agreement pathways become a distant dream.

The protest, along with other actions this week, aims to highlight the decisions being made at the summit and add pressure to the call by many countries to kick the J/5.rev1 into the long grass and work towards an urgently needed more powerful regulatory framework.

Pressure groups and NGOs are effectively calling out the IMO’s lack of action and asking for individual governments and the EU to bring in legislation at national, regional and local level. In line with the EU’s ‘Green New Deal’, in July proposals went forward for a European system to bring in MRV Regulation (to monitor, report and verify maritime CO2 emissions).

At the protest we also spoke with Adeel, a Mauritian activist who’s joined Ocean Rebellion. He blames the IMO for lack of regulation, transparency and response over the recent tragic environmental disaster and ensuing civil unrest in Mauritius. MV Waskashio (a Japanese ship flying under a Panamanian flag of convenience) hit a coral reef outside Blue Bay on the 24th July. It spilled 1000 tonnes of oil which has affected 19 miles of coastline in a nature reserve, killing at least 70 dolphins, many whales, leaving thousands more mammals seriously ill, and profoundly affecting the economy, food security, health and the tourism industry. Four local people have also died during the clean-up operation.

Real Media covered a massive oil spill off the coast of Brazil (that country’s worst environmental disaster) just one year ago. It’s way past time tighter regulation and control puts a stop to these tragedies, something the IMO has failed to do.