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The foreign minister of the Marshall Islands yesterday delivered an impassioned speech calling for greater curbs to CO2 emissions by shipping, after seeing its request for more stringent curbs rejected by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) this week.

In late April, Tony de Brum had issued a proposed to the IMO’s Maritime Environment Protection Committee’s (MEPC) 68th meeting, held in London this week, “for the setting of a new global target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping, a growing sector currently left out of international climate negotiations”.

At the time he said: “The goal of keeping global temperature rise under 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius requires action from all countries, and all sectors of the global economy. International shipping must be part of the action. While the sector currently contributes only 2-3% of global emissions, its projected growth is a real cause for concern. Without urgent action, it is estimated that the sector could soon account for between 6-14% of global emissions – as much as the entire European Union emits today.”

However, after a 90-minute debate at the MEPC on Wednesday, during which the world’s largest flag state, Panama, outright rejected the proposal, the MEPC committee refused to adopt it and instead issued a more oblique assessment that the CO2 plan “could be further addressed at [a] future session, recognising [the] need to move cautiously forward on proposal”.

In response to the session, John Maggs, senior policy advisor with Seas At Risk and president of the Clean Shipping Coalition, said: “Today the Marshall Islands, Vanuatu, and other small island Pacific states brought courage, clarity of purpose and the urgency of the climate change crisis to the IMO, perhaps for the first time. The failure of the IMO to grasp the significance of this moment and make an urgently needed step change in the pace of ship GHG [greenhouse gas] emission reductions was shameful.”

Yesterday Mr de Brum delivered a speech at Imperial College’s Grantham Institute in London in which he vividly described the way climate change was already affecting the Marshall Islands, made up of a series of low-lying atolls in the Pacific Ocean.

“In 2013 a prolonged drought in the northern islands led to state of emergency being declared for a couple of months. Just as supplies were beginning to arrive by aircraft at the airport, outside the capital of Majuro, rising sea levels flooded the airport.

Tony de Brum

Airport on the Marshall Islands, Wikimapia

“I have seen more Pacific storms in the last three months than over my entire childhood, and it’s not even the peak season yet. We need to cap global CO2 emissions and then we need to reduce them. My task is simple – I must convince the big nations that de-carbonisation is in their interests,” he added, referring to the forthcoming meeting in Paris in December of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and where he will once again call for tighter emissions control.

The caveat is that the shipping industry is not covered by UNFCCC resolutions.

In February 2013, Mr de Brum delivered a speech to the UN Security Council on the impact of climate change on global security.

Yesterday, he said: “In 1977, after many years of negotiations with the US, I went to the UN to fight for my country’s independence, and I was told that I needed the UN Security Council’s blessing. In 1986, the Marshall Islands achieved that independence, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would return to the UN decades later to be told that the future of my country was not on its agenda – in whose world is the potential loss of a country not a threat to security? I know an existential threat when I see one.”

However, the Marshall Islands is also the third-largest shipping registry in the world, after Panama and Liberia, although the flag is managed by a US-based company that also conducts its representation at the IMO.

At times, the country and registry appear to have conflicting priorities, and earlier this week Mr de Brum suggested in an interview with The Guardian that it may “consider rejecting oil rig registrations, but the act would be useless in isolation”.

However, his April submission to the IMO recognised that the commercial realities of the international flag system confirmed his view that the industry as whole needed to act: “The actions of one or a small group of registries alone will not be enough. Ships these days can jump easily from flag to flag to avoid tougher standards. Cleaning up this global industry requires a global approach. With a strong wind blowing in the climate action sails en route to Paris, the IMO must move to set a sector-wide international shipping emissions target now.”


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