Arsenio Dominguez IMO

IMO’s decarbonization focus tested amid escalating Red Sea tensions

Following a major step to create a regulatory framework for the full decarbonization of the maritime industry with the adoption of a revised Greenhouse Gas (GHG) strategy in July last year and alignment with the objectives of the Pairs Agreement on curbing global warming, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is now gearing up for a new challenging chapter under new leadership.

Image credit: IMO; Arsenio Dominguez

Specifically, the IMO has a new Secretary-General, Mr. Arsenio Domnguez, who has taken over his mandate in January 2024.

He is stepping into a very challenging role keeping in mind that the next step for the IMO on the decarbonization front will be coming up with an implementation plan.

The new IMO Secretary-General Arsenio Dominguez plans to focus on four strategic priorities in his mandate: IMO’s work to regulate international shipping; its support to Member States – particularly Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries; enhancing public awareness and image; and relations with people and stakeholders. 

Speaking at a press conference in London, Dominguez shared a timeline for the IMO’s work on decarbonization of the sector.

In March 2024, the Marine Environment Protection Committee will hold its 81st session (MEPC 81 and the discussions will center around medium-term measures, building on the progress made to date.

These measures include the establishment of a global marine fuel standard and pricing mechanism. The committee is scheduled to evaluate the impact assessment report and analyze the implications of these measures on countries.

The finalization of the impact assessment is set for October 2024 (MEPC 82), with the approval and adoption of measures expected in spring and autumn 2025, respectively (MEPC 83).

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Amid the shipping industry’s concerted efforts to address decarbonization challenges, a stark reality has emerged with the escalating security situation in the Red Sea.

Commercial shipping faces an alarming increase in drone and anti-ballistic missile attacks perpetrated by Houthi forces in Yemen.

The UN Secretary-General condemned the attacks and underscored the paramount importance of protecting seafarers’ lives. He continued to call for the de-escalation of tensions and the freedom of navigation of ships in the area.  

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Trade volume going through the Suez Canal has fallen by 42% over the last two months, according to estimates by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).  

The alternative shipping route via the Cape of Good Hope is causing significant congestion in African bunkering ports, leading to operational inefficiencies and port congestion. Prepared ports, like the Port of Tanger-Med, anticipate benefits from increased volumes.

In West Mediterranean ports, such as the Port of Algeciras and Port of Valencia in Spain, capacity is expected to absorb a temporary volume increase, according to the data from the Morningstar DBRS group. Spanish ports initially saw a decrease in cargo ships in November but have mostly recovered, with Port of Valencia at around 80% of November volumes.

The Red Sea unrest is anticipated to modestly impact Northern European ports, while ports in the East and Central Mediterranean may experience temporary drops in volumes. Italian ports, including Genova and Gioia, face risks with cargo ship reductions.

The latest attacks have prompted the United States to take action, conducting air strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen, but also in Iraq and Syria, in retaliation against attacks on its soldiers believed to be backed by Iran. Beyond the immediate security concerns, these attacks contribute to significant environmental consequences, releasing massive pollution into the air and causing infrastructure destruction.

The interconnectedness of global issues becomes evident as the pursuit of full decarbonization is undermined by the ongoing conflicts, highlighting the imperative for lasting peace as an integral part of achieving a sustainable and environmentally friendly future.