Staying global

Long-serving Deputy Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) Simon Bennett explains to David Hughes why he believes achieving a renewed, strengthened IMO decarbonisation strategy is vital

June 10, 2023

DH: Can you sketch out your career at ICS and what your current role entails.


SB: I currently have the grand title of Deputy Secretary General, and working with our Secretary General, Guy Platten, I co-ordinate the agenda of the ICS Board of our 40 member national shipowner associations and help ensure that ICS policy making departments – which make representations to a wide range of intergovernmental bodies that impact shipping in addition to IMO – are delivering a consistent message. I have actually been at ICS for over 30 years – my only proper job except taxi driving and working in what was then the world’ largest pizza factory. For ICS, I originally worked on industrial relations and training issues, including what was then called the 1995 revision of the IMO STCW Convention and ILO meetings. I then moved into what we call ‘shipping policy’ which is primarily about maintaining the level playing field, free trade principles and matters like taxation and competition regulation, working with bodies such as the UN in New York, OECD and WTO. Today though, about 70% of my time is taken up with the CO2 reduction negotiations at IMO, which reflects how this is by far is most important issue affecting shipowners, as if governments get this wrong it could mess up the entire structure of the industry and its ability to provide the world economy with sustainable low-cost marine transportation.   


DH: You have been involved in the debate over how to reduce shipping’s carbon footprint for several years now. When do you think balance within senior levels in the shipping industry tipped towards accepting the need for decarbonisation? Is there a genuine commitment in the industry to achieve net zero or is it a superficial gloss?


SB: It’s been an incremental process, but the Paris Agreement of 2015 followed by the adaption of IMO in response to this of its first set of shipping GHG targets in 2018 made the direction of travel absolutely clear, as will the ambitious new targets we expect governments to agree at IMO this July. Given the truly huge enormity of the challenge, the shipping industry’s support for a net zero target for 2050 may sound to some with a more cynical bent as unrealistic virtue signalling, but we genuinely believe this is possible if governments provide us with the regulatory framework we need to achieve this.


Our support for this ambitious net zero target reflects the political reality that if we don’t make dramatic progress on GHG reduction now, we may be faced with the prospect of maritime transport being rationed and a chaotic piecemeal patchwork of unilateral regulation, with IMO as our global regulator being reduced to shadow of its current self. This is what is stake.     


DH: Are you frustrated by accusations by green campaigners and in the press that shipping is a particularly ‘dirty’ industry?


SB: Green campaigners have to do their job, which is campaigning to draw attention to important issues like climate change and we respect that, and actually have a fairly cordial relationship with the green NGOs at IMO. More frustrating is when certain governments that like to style themselves as “high ambition states” refuse to acknowledge the real progress that has been made by shipping on GHG reduction in the past 15 years, or the scale of the challenge – saying that something must be done without nuance or coming forward with calls for action with our workable technical solutions or taking steps to ensure the availability of new green fuels, without which the transition cannot happen.

DH: One of ICS’s key arguments when pushing for an IMO bunker levy to boost research and development on alternative fuels was that not enough effort was being put into that area. ICS is now proposing an IMO Fund and Reward scheme, a form of market Based Measure, to boost decarbonisation. Does that mean ICS accepts that the technology for net zero will be available but adopting it will depend on costs?


SB: The need for more R&D funding to increase technology readiness levels is still important and forms part the ICS Fund and Reward proposal. But the political debate at IMO has moved on and the key to decarbonisation of shipping will be the widespread availability in ports worldwide of the new green zero-carbon fuels.


DH: The EU has just decided to push ahead with including shipping in its Emissions Trading System under the Fit for 55 package. Meanwhile, MEPC 80 this July is expected to adopt a revised IMO Strategy for Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships. How optimistic are you that IMO will adopt the Fund and Reward proposal? More generally, how important is getting a more ambitious GHG strategy at IMO this year? What could happen if this is not achieved?


SB: We think our Fund and Reward proposal is gaining traction at IMO and the EU states have said they can support it – or something similar – if it’s complemented by a global fuel standard whereby the permitted GHG intensity of marine fuels will be progressively reduced over time – something which ICS also supports and on which it is about to come forward with its own proposal. But we need the Fund and Reward system too, to provide the necessary incentives to first movers to help shipping reach a take-off point by 2030 for production and the use of new fuels so that a net zero goal for 2050 remains plausible. We need to narrow the price gap between conventional fuels and green fuels – and this is what the Fund and Reward proposal – which is backed by the entire shipping industry – is designed to achieve.


A global scheme such as the ICS’s fund & reward proposal is preferable to unilateral, regional applications of Market Based Measures such as the EU ETS, which will only apply to about 7.5% of global shipping emissions, ultimately failing to reduce global emissions to the extent required. Only via a global solution at IMO can we deliver the scale of transition needed.


DH: Finally, and changing the subject, IBIA is promoting the licensing of bunker suppliers and the introduction of mandatory quantity measurement (as through mass flow meters). Where does ICS stand on these issues?


SB: We fully agree with the need to licence bunker suppliers and have been advocating this at IMO for many years. Apart from fuel quality issues and compliance with the IMO sulphur cap, this issue will become ever more urgent when it comes to the labelling of sustainable bio-fuels for example, or green methanol or ammonia as opposed to that produced with fossil feedstocks. But with notable exceptions like Singapore, most governments have been somewhat reluctant to take on this responsibility.

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