All polluters are created equal, but some are more equal. This, for over 30 years, had been the EU’s credo when it came to regulating the shipping industry, the only sector fully exempt from EU climate action. But in December 2019, after years of determined campaigning by T&E, the Von der Leyen Commission, announced Europe would finally get its act together on shipping’s carbon emissions.

It’s been evident for some time that the global regulator of shipping is almost incapable of taking climate action. The International Maritime Organisation has moved at a snail’s pace to even agree what to do about the sector’s carbon pollution, which is about 3% of global CO2 emissions. At the same time, the IMO has obstructed the EU acting. In 2019, T&E’s focus was to protect the EU climate measures already in place for ships, and to ramp them up as a new Commission vowed to make Europe climate neutral by 2050.

The year started with a big fight to defend how the EU collects and publishes data about the emissions of ships calling at its ports. The shipping industry and the IMO pressured the bloc to harmonise its system for carbon pollution with the IMO’s hopelessly weak one. The transparency of the EU system, unlike the IMO’s, would prevent dirty ships from passing themselves off as efficient. It would incentivise shipping companies to cut their CO2 while also better informing regulations designed to reduce those emissions. It would also require companies to report data on their ships’ air pollution in ports.

Cruising for a bruising

After months of lobbying and brow beating by industry and the IMO, the European Commission heeded T&E and others by proposing to largely keep its system, which would underpin the future climate measures T&E was seeking. By year’s end, the effort had paid off when the EU’s first emissions data for ships revealed the true scale of the sector’s problem: a container shipping operator had joined coal plants and Ryanair in the EU’s list of top 10 carbon emitters. The Mediterranean Shipping Company’s (MSC) fleet, which moves consumer goods, ranging from electronics and fresh fruit to clothes and toys, was responsible for about 11 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 emissions in 2018. T&E analysis of the data showed that MSC would be the 8th biggest emitter in the bloc if shipping was part of the EU’s emissions trading system.

"According to a new study by NGO Transport & Environment, the world leader in luxury cruising, Carnival Corporation, alone emitted in 2017 ten times more sulfur oxide (SOx) around  European coasts than all of the 260 million vehicles in the European fleet."
Le Monde - 05/06/2019

The shipping sector kept T&E’s analysts busy in 2019. In June a deep dive into publicly available data on luxury cruise ships found that the world’s biggest operator, Carnival Corporation, had emitted nearly 10 times more sulphur oxide (SOX) around European coasts than all 260 million of Europe’s cars in 2017. Royal Caribbean Cruises, the world’s second largest, emitted four times more than the European car fleet.

T&E was the first to match the exact routes that cruise ships had sailed with data on their fuel burn. Not only did it reveal the biggest SOx and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emitters, but also which port cities bore the worst of their sulphur pollution: Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Venice, Southampton and Civitavecchia (Rome).

The study was a bombshell for the cruise industry, which had been used to receiving a free pass in environmental regulation. It was reported in virtually all major news outlets and on TV channels worldwide. Pressure was now mounting on regulators to require cruise lines to use shore-side electricity in ports, batteries for shorter distances and hydrogen technology for longer voyages. The EU Green Deal included plans to make some of this a reality. 

In September we published an analysis that found shipping was benefitting from what was effectively a fossil fuel subsidy of €24 billion a year. The sector’s exemption from energy taxes under the EU’s Energy Tax Directive (ETD) was a perverse incentive for climate pollution.

Slow lane

Meanwhile the IMO remained unmoved on the wider sector’s climate impact. Five years after the Paris climate agreement and two years after countries agreed a global 2050 decarbonisation objective, its meetings were ending in procedural wrangling. Despite pleas from the T&E-backed Clean Shipping Coalition, IMO states failed to make any progress on speed reduction.

The EU’s patience finally started to wear thin when a new Commission swept into power with a Green Deal to decarbonise all sectors of the economy. At T&E’s urging, president Ursula von der Leyen and climate chief Frans Timmermans announced that shipping should start to pay for its pollution through the bloc’s emissions trading system. T&E’s recommendations on a zero-emissions berth standard - to require ships to run on electricity while in-port - were also made a priority for the next Commission. It also pledged to accelerate the roll-out of clean fuel infrastructure for ships - meaning electric and hydrogen facilities.