Meet the UN organisation attacking climate ambition

(Pic: World MeteorologicalOrganisation)

These are tough times for efforts to tackle climate change.

While the planet warms to record levels, moves to slash greenhouse gases appear to be in jeopardy, largely due to a man called Donald who lives in the White House.

Last week Trump announced he was scrapping the US Clean Power Plan, a raft of policies aimed at slashing coal use and with it the country’s carbon emissions.

Despite assurances from China and the EU that they remained committed to a 2015 UN-brokered pact to address global warming, the US stance sent shudders across the world.

New analysis from the Carbon Brief website shows just four years of current levels of carbon emissions will virtually lock in warming above 1.5C, a level governments had pledged to avoid.

With this in mind it came as a slight surprise to see a senior UN official last week launch a none-too-subtle attack on European efforts to tackle carbon emissions from shipping.

The official’s name is Kitack Lim, the South Korean head of the London-based International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the UN body mandated with governing global shipping.

Lim has repeatedly condemned moves in Brussels to crank up pressure on his organisation to deliver a climate deal for shipping, 20 years after it was first asked to do so under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Offered the chance to address EU ministers at a Malta summit last week, Lim could have praised the bloc’s efforts to negotiate a global maritime climate deal.

He could have offered his vision for a global pact, or explained why it was important to see IMO and EU leadership in the face of a rising tide of climate scepticism in the US and beyond.

Instead ministers heard this veiled attack on Brussels: “The key point I want to make to you today is how vital it is that shipping continues to be regulated globally.

“This is important because global regulations apply equally to all. They do not allow anyone to gain an advantage either by cutting corners or by imposing unilateral requirements.”

In a separate IMO publication released at the end of March, Lim also appeared to question whether the shipping sector would even have to make further greenhouse gas emission cuts.

A new data collection system would be a first step he said “leading to an informed decision on whether any further measures are needed to enhance energy efficiency and address GHG emissions from international shipping.”

To be fair to Lim, he did acknowledge “climate change is real” in the same publication and underlined his commitment to delivering a solution at the IMO.

But given the small time window for action, this is too little, too late.

Reality gap

Lim presumably has read his own organisation’s 2014 report into shipping’s GHG emissions, which are currently around 3% of the global total.

He’s presumably aware that the report said that emissions could rise 50–250% by 2050 unless they are regulated.

He’s presumably aware that faith in his body to guide its 170+ members to a climate deal is fast running out — hence the EU’s decision to raise pressure by threatening its own measures if — and only if — the IMO itself fails to deliver.

He’s also presumably aware that the UN secretary general in New York and climate chief in Bonn are frantically trying to maintain momentum on one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Why then this rhetoric against proposed regional action, given a backdrop of global inaction?

It’s hard not to think the IMO lives in an alternative universe, where there is no remaining carbon budget, where rising sea levels, drought, famine and floods are mere fiction.

What’s true is sealing a shipping decarbonisation pact will be tough: alternatives to fossil fuels are at early stages of development, the global maritime industry is in financial crisis.

It’s also true the sector is critical to global trade, carrying 90% of goods, meaning any decision will have widespread and potentially seismic impacts.

Yet there are precedents: notably the 2015 Paris Agreement and 2016 global deals on aviation and HFC emissions, all involving hundreds of countries.

Ultimately it’s the job of UN officials to show leadership in tough times, and to strive to protect the planet and people even when consensus looks impossible.

The IMO chief cannot dictate policies to 172 governments, nor can he set the agenda of talks. This is not an issue one person can resolve.

But leaders can set the tone, and by attacking EU efforts to help deliver a global climate deal on shipping as the carbon budget shrinks fast, the IMO is failing in its duty as a UN institution.

To quote Christiana Figueres, key architect of the UN’s Paris Agreement: “Impossible is not a fact. It is an attitude.”