International convention on ship recycling agreed

The International Maritime Organization has finalised its ship recycling convention. It is unclear who will pay for upgrades to ship recycling facilities to ensure they dispose of ships safely. Talks on curbing shipping’s greenhouse gas emission stalled.

Shipowners will not have to pay for the improvement of poor-quality, highly polluting recycling facilities in Asia, as called for by the European Commission, according to a convention agreed by the International Maritime Organization.

The IMO has been developing a ship-recycling convention since 2005 due to concern about the way vessels are scrapped in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. They are dismantled on beaches without any barriers to soil or water pollution. Non-recyclable materials - including hazardous wastes such as asbestos and PCBs - are often dumped directly on the beach.

The IMO’s marine environment protection committee approved a final text of the convention at an October meeting in London.1 This will be adopted at a diplomatic conference in Hong Kong next May and is likely to come into force in 2015.

Ships will have to carry an inventory of hazardous materials used in their construction, the convention says. They can only be sent for disposal at recycling facilities authorised by parties to the convention. These "shall establish management systems… which do not pose health risks to the workers concerned or to the population in the vicinity… and which will prevent, reduce or minimise… effects on the environment".

Hazardous materials should be removed "to the maximum extent possible" before cutting, the convention adds. Any hazardous wastes produced should undergo "safe and environmentally sound management". The facility should also have a plan to "prevent spills or emissions".

But the convention does not say who will pay for the improvement of recycling facilities in Asia. Last year, the European Commission issued a green paper on ship recycling that called for producer responsibility in the shipping industry (ENDS Report 389, pp 48-49 ). Shipowners should pay into a fund for improvements to recycling facilities, it said, rather than responsibility falling on public bodies. Payment could be linked to registration with the IMO.

The convention does not comment on the possibility of a fund. Instead it says the convention’s parties agree "to provide support for [other] parties which request technical assistance". This appears to include technology and funding to upgrade facilities.

Other Commission criticisms of the convention’s early drafts have also not been dealt with. It will not apply to commercial vessels below 500 gross tons or government-owned vessels.

It also does not appear to provide an equivalent level of control to the Basel Convention, which bans the export of hazardous waste from OECD countries to non-OECD countries. This implies that when a ship is sent from an OECD to a non-OECD country it has to first be ‘pre-cleaned’ of hazardous materials. But under the IMO’s new convention, this ban does not apply if the recycling facility in the developing world can deal with hazardous waste.

The UK’s ship recycling strategy only permits the recycling of government-owned vessels in OECD countries (ENDS Report 386, p 44 ). UK-flagged vessels have to meet the Basel Convention requirements.

  • A global deal on cutting greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping in time for next year’s Copenhagen climate talks is now unlikely, after talks at the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee stalled.

    The talks on the final day of the meeting were expected to build on work at a meeting last June in Oslo. But the debate reached an impasse between developing and developed countries.

    Developing countries refused to accept any IMO-sanctioned action on climate change that does not respect the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", which often used in international environmental negotiations, that wealthier countries should do more because they have profited more from exploitation of resources in the past.

    But developed countries argued that all countries should be treated equally, since all other IMO activities are built around the principle of equal treatment for all ships.

    Since three-quarters of the world’s merchant fleet fly the flag of undeveloped countries, any regulatory regime to cut emissions from shipping would be ineffective if it only applied to developed countries.

    The committee decided to hold an intercessional meeting in March to focus only on these issues. IMO rules allow for six months to ratify texts of agreements. However, the draft text for the Copenhagen protocol needs to be ready by June 2009. The next MEPC meeting is one month later in July.

    A technical subcommittee of the IMO had been discussing a fuel efficiency index to ensure that new ships are built to better standards than previously. But it could not decide whether this should be mandatory or voluntary. An IMO study last year put ships’ carbon emissions at 2.7% of the global total.

    The environment protection committee failed to agree on any meaningful reduction of emissions of oxides of nitrogen from the existing global fleet of over 90,000 ships. But it did agree to toughen regulations on the sulphur content of fuel from 2020. Ships should use marine fuels with a maximum sulphur content of 0.5%. From 2015, countries will be permitted to establish local Emission Control Areas, where sulphur limits would be 0.1%. The current permitted maximum is 4.5%.

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