Denmark proposed a fuel tax on international shipping to encourage emissions reductions. Although the levy has received support from least-developed countries, other developing countries that rely heavily on exports, such as China and Saudi Arabia, opposed the tax, saying it would constrain economic development. The countries instead favored voluntary technological advances.
The negotiation impasse has led some environmentalists to lose faith in the IMO's ability to settle on a climate change agreement for the industry.
International maritime shipping contributed roughly 2.7 percent of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions in 2007, according to the agency. Without an agreement among the world's main shipping nations to reduce emissions, the IMO projects that associated emissions may increase between 150 and 250 percent by 2050 due to expected growth in maritime trade.
Shipping and aviation are the only industry sectors not regulated under the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate agreement that sets emission targets for industrialized countries.
Friends of the Earth-U.S. said that the UN agency began debating this same topic 12 years ago, yet little progress has been made.
'The IMO's failure to take substantive action this week shows that it may be incapable of tackling this problem,' said John Kaltenstein, manager of FOE's clean vessels program, in a press release. 'Patience with the IMO is fast disappearing.'
The autumn meeting of the IMO is likely to be the final opportunity for delegates to reach a compromise before all countries meet this December in Copenhagen, Denmark, to form a successor international agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. IMO Secretary-General Efthimios Mitropoulos therefore urged IMO delegates to join together in finding a solution. 'The time for apportioning blame as to who is responsible for the state of the planet has passed. Now it is time for action,' Mitropoulos said in an address. 'IMO, that is, its member governments, must act - and act in such a manner that the Copenhagen conference will find it easy to repeat the decision made in Kyoto, to continue entrusting the [IMO] with the regulation of shipping from the reduction and limitation of [greenhouse gas] emissions points of view.'
The committee did finalize interim guidelines of the Energy Efficient Design Index for new ships and the Ship Energy Efficiency Management plan for new and existing ships. The incentives are intended to stimulate vessel designers to minimize fuel use while increasing the ships' storage capacities.
The efficiency incentives come as container ships have increased substantially in size. Ships built before 1986 carried no more than 4,000 standard containers on average. Vessels constructed since 2000, known as the fifth generation of container ships, carry an average of 7,598 standard containers. A sixth generation of vessels carries more than 11,000 standard containers. Several of these ships have proven to be too large for many of the world's seaports and canals.
If IMO members do not agree on a climate accord by 2011, the European Commission has threatened to regulate the region's shipping industry by imposing a fuel tax on vessels or by incorporating shipping into the E.U. Emission Trading Scheme, the region's cap-and-trade system for overseeing emissions reductions.
Oxfam International estimates that an emissions cap on shipping companies in industrialized countries would raise $16.6 billion by 2015 [PDF]. Oxfam has suggested that the funding be used to help developing countries adapt to the damaging effects of climate change, such as drought, sea-level rise, and the spread of tropical diseases.
Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com.