Analysis | SHIPPING

Peter Nutall: ‘Ship Owners Must Address Green House Gas (GHG) Emission’

Why is shipping important to climate change? And why are our Pacific delegations playing such a critical role in the International Maritime Organisation’s current debates?
06 Feb 2020 14:36
Peter Nutall: ‘Ship Owners Must Address Green House Gas (GHG) Emission’


For the past five years, our team of University of the South (USP) scientists with colleagues from leading European universities has been providing research and technical support to a coalition of Pacific Island members of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) working with other high ambition countries, calling for ever increasing reduction in international shipping emissions.

The sustained, consistent pressure of delegations from Fiji, Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Tonga and others since 2015 is widely credited as a catalyst that has forced shipping to address its role as a major global Green House Gas (GHG) emitter and led to IMO setting firm targets in 2018 to begin decarbonising the industry.

The targets aren’t as high as we need to stay under 1.5 degrees, but they are major step forward.

Five years ago, the discussions on this matter were very much a backroom affair, held outside the major global debates on climate change.

Today, shipping emissions are a high-ticket item, at the forefront of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s Climate Change Summit last year and they will be a centrepiece of the UN Oceans Summit in Lisbon in June. The Pacific can be justifiably proud of the work of its diplomats and delegations in driving this agenda.

International Shipping is a behemoth of a global industry. The enabler of all world trade, ships move 90 per cent by volume and 80 per cent by value of all goods in the world. No other form of transport can move the huge volumes of raw resources and finished products that keep the global economies gears grinding.

Ships are often the most energy efficient transport available compared with trucks and planes. It’s an industry of big numbers, ships can cost $100’s of millions to buy, a large oil tanker might carry a $100 million worth of crude, we have container ships that carry more than 20,000 containers at a time.  Here in the Pacific we have some of the highest shipping costs in the world, but generally global shipping is relatively inexpensive.

So why the concern? Because big ships burn large quantities of dirty fuels and shipping emissions of greenhouse gasses is high and increasing. Because global trade is forecast to grow, so shipping must also expand. If shipping was a country, it would be an emitter of the same size as Germany. And if we do not change shipping’s carbon footprint now, by 2050 it could emit as much as the continent of Europe. Ships are expensive assets and have a working life of 20-30 years or more. This means we have to make the decisions about how to change shipping to non-carbon fuels and technologies now, not in 2030 or 2050.  It will be too late then.

Shipping, and its cousin aviation, are international industries, servicing across and beyond national borders. And so it was left out of first Kyoto and then the Paris Agreements on climate change.

Those agreements are for national emissions. Instead shipping is regulated at the global level by another UN Agency, IMO headquartered in London. In the build-up to the Paris Agreement, shipping stayed out the limelight of the global debates on climate change.

It tends to be an ‘out sight, out of mind’ industry for most people and the IMO has a heavy industry presence and influence. Previous IMO discussion on regulating ship emissions using market-based measures such as carbon or fuel taxes had created large divisions between the member states and were abandoned a decade ago.


One of the leading architects of the Paris Agreement was the then Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum.  But the Marshall’s is also host to the second largest ship registry in the world and this makes it a superpower in shipping.

In 2015 Minister de Brum led a Pacific delegation to the IMO calling for reductions commensurate with 1.5 degrees.  Since then, we have been joined by other high ambition countries, including many from Europe, NZ and Canada. Working closely with other UN partners such as United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) we are reaching out to other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and climate vulnerable.

While our shipping interests are quite different to those of Europe and large developed trading nations, we are proving that we all face a common threat in this climate crisis and that mature, measured debate is still the best path to durable solutions. The Shipping High Ambition Coalition (SHAC) we have forged since 2015 provides a space for this to occur. It is a unique approach.

Collectively, the IMO member states must now agree a managed step change from fuel oil powered to non-carbon ships. That will be no small feat, given that some of the major actors do not see the climate crisis with same the urgency as the Pacific. Some do not admit to seeing it at all.

Small and poor countries, the climate most vulnerable, don’t usually have a loud voice in IMO. They aren’t normally associated with the major shipping powerhouses or the shipping interests of large states. It’s very expensive to maintain delegations to the IMO in London.  But with technical support from our international university partners and funding support from NZ, UK and more recently the EC we have been able to sustain an increasing Pacific voice to the unique concerns and interests of SIDS and Least Developed Countries (LDCs).  As our small delegations shuttle back and forth to London it sometimes feels a total David and Goliath struggle. However, there is also immense pride in watching our officers and diplomats grow in confidence and stature. They are certainly earning global respect.


Now that the IMO has set its initial target of at least 50 per cent overall emissions reduction by 2050, the real debates over what measures to employ and how to enforce them are coming to the fore. These are highly technical in nature and will become increasingly so. There is a lot at stake. Our latest science is that an investment of at least $1 trillion is needed to transition global shipping to new generation green fuels – most likely ammonia, hydrogen, and bio-fuels. Industry leaders are moving quickly to position themselves to benefit from this massive investment opportunity.

But it raises particular questions for our small islands.  Will we also benefit, or will we will be left behind and increasingly penalised?  We are increasingly dependent on shipping for our connection to the rest of the globe, our transport lines are long, thin, expensive and vulnerable, we are the ‘maritime continent’.

Our work of the past five years has demonstrated that with the right support a Pacific voice can be heard despite our small stature. But a lot more work lies ahead if the interests of our islands in this huge international debate are to be protected.

  • Peter Nuttall is the University of the South Pacific Scientific and Technical Advisor at the Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport.

Got A News Tip

Get updates from the Fiji Sun, handpicked and delivered to your inbox.

By entering your email address you're giving us permission to send you news and offers. You can opt-out at any time.

For All Fiji Sun Advertising
Fijisun E-edition