Getting Smarter? How the IMO plans to shape future regulation

September 20, 2018

Is the International Maritime Organization on something of a roll? The shipping industry’s primary regulator, so often derided as being insufficiently nimble to tackle big issues or too legally and politically focussed to consider practical implementation, appears to have a new lease of life.

Granted it is starting from a fairly low base. In particular, the catastrophe of the Ballast Water Management Convention is still playing out. Only last week, class society ABS reported provisional figures from its 2018 survey of operational experiences with treatment systems, updating the 2017 process.

This time, while only 5% of systems were deemed inoperable (compared to 15% in 2017), a massive 44% nevertheless reported ‘problematic operations’. The introduction of an ‘experience building phase’ is intended to give shipowners the opportunity, with adequate vendor technical support, to get their installed systems operating with sufficient reliability.

While the Organization attempts to put ballast behind it, the industry is focussed squarely on the next challenge: 2020. We looked at the scenarios recently and while the industry faces considerable uncertainty on costs and sourcing of compliant fuel, it cannot complain that implementation is in doubt.

Further ahead, the industry has a far greater challenge – and one that it is yet to fully appreciate – how to effectively begin decarbonisation of the industry, making it at least 70% more efficient and cutting 2008 carbon emissions by 50% in 2050.

It was these topics that Secretary General Kitack Lim chose to address in an interview with TradeWinds Editor Julian Bray during the paper’s Shipowners’ Forum held during SMM. Rarely to be found in conversation without a prepared script, Lim was nonetheless in upbeat mood, painting a positive picture of 2020 compliance prospects and the roadmap to 2050.

Lim accepted that there had been criticism of the IMO’s decision to adopt 2020 as the deadline for the new sulphur cap but he was also keen to remind all present that this discussion had been going on since the 1990s. Anyone who was surprised by the end point cannot have been paying too much attention to the process, he implied.

The first decision on low sulphur fuel was made in 2008 and the final one in 2016 was important in removing of uncertainty in terms of compliance dates and targets.

Rather than impose the means to comply, IMO effectively permitted shipping companies, manufacturers and refiners to make their own preparations and implement the rules within their own businesses. He acknowledged technical challenges in the supply process and said the IMO would concentrate its efforts on minimising these problems as far as possible.

Elsewhere, the organization has come under intense criticism lately that its process has effectively been subject to external influence with lobbying by member states effectively stalling an agreement on climate change but what was the view inside the IMO?

Lim acknowledged the concerns – and has clearly read the stories – but insisted that he sees the 2020 regulations in particular as positive evidence that the system is working. How could the industry have produced compromise by consensus without good discussion and collaboration he asked. Member states, industry and NGOs had worked together and while he expected some dissent, the majority agreed to the measures.

In terms of the much bigger challenge of 2030-2050, he called on the industry to become ever-more deeply involved in the process. There was already good evidence of the industry’s desire to start taking the real action needed to make progress, but clearly collaboration will be key.

Indeed, if the traditional conversation around IMO was lack of ambition, then its goals for greenhouse gas reduction could be said to have exceeded many observers’ expectations.

Lim said that it was important for IMO to demonstrate that level of ambition with a guiding principle of driving innovative solutions, but the decision was made on the basis of close discussion between the industry and member states.

Describing carbon reduction a megatrend, he said IMO’s focus on the issue was to meet the challenges as far as possible in a way that was most beneficial to the industry, deploying short medium and long term strategies.

Discussions have already begun on candidate measures for the short and medium terms and he expected further developments at the next meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee in October.

2020 is a challenge that will require working together – and he even acknowledged the role of the media for its part in prompting some member states to move towards a positive stance on GHG emissions reduction.

This bout of openness could of course be construed as a Lim’s pitch for a second term as IMO’s leader and he was certainly on-message in terms of what the organization needs to do to remain relevant and even push the boundaries.

Work items such as climate change and autonomous shipping require careful handling but he believes that ultimately both these topics require the application of better data and new technology.

Lim said member states should make their decisions based on data capture and utilisation and the secretariat too, needs to work smarter, making more efficient decisions based on the best available advice and information.

The IMO should also promote itself and he would work with other UN and international bodies to ensure they understand shipping’s role in international logistics and the contribution it makes to global economy.

It’s a message the industry is no doubt keen to hear: a more effective, more efficient IMO, a better servant for the activity of the industry and member states alike. The challenge for the industry will be to get onboard to hold the organization to its aims.