Black Trail

The shipping industry is a massive climate polluter. Is it committed to change?

By Craig Shaw, Zeynep Şentek
30 April 2021

Shipping is an industry apart from any other. It is a linchpin of the global economy, transporting around 90% of the world’s goods, 11 billion tonnes every year. Everything from OLED TVs from South Korea, bananas from Ecuador, iPads from China, to crude oil, grain, raw materials, chemicals, even trash waste.

And not only goods, but people, too. Every year, 30 million people board huge, floating cities decked out with cinemas, bars, and swimming pools and sail to foreign lands to experience the culture, taste the food, drink the wine.

All this comes at a cost. This multi-trillion-dollar industry produces a massive amount of greenhouse gases, which causes climate change, and toxins, that cost thousands of deaths each year in coastal regions, port towns and cities.

The International Maritime Organization, the UN Agency that governs global shipping, estimates that in the six-year period up until 2018, the industry's CO2 output was over a billion tonnes, 3% of the global total.

As the world struggles to respond to the climate crisis, with states and multinational corporations under pressure to reduce emissions, the shipping sector remains exempt from major environmental efforts like the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement.

But it avoids more than environmental regulations. A $14 trillion industry, the sector pays very little taxes, with much of its assets and profits offshore or passing through preferential tax schemes.

Public attitudes to tax fairness and the environment hardened in recent years. ‘Climate change’ became the ‘climate crisis’. Last year was one of the three hottest years on record, and all three occurred this decade. There were record hurricanes and wildfires, including in colder regions like Siberia. Rising sea levels threaten the very existence of some countries.

Today’s youth, inspired by activists like Greta Thunberg, reject older generations' excuses for slow progress and pressure policymakers. One consequence is that many authorities have begun to pay attention to the shipping industry.

For the past year, a team of journalists from the European Investigative Collaborations network produced Black Trail, a documentary project, to be released by The Black Sea and partners over the weekend.

Led by The Black Sea and Expresso, Reporters United (Greece), RTS (Switzerland) and VG (Norway), and co-produced by SIC TV (Portugal), and with research support from Financed Uncovered (UK), Black Trail delves into the shipping industry's efforts to hide from the climate debate, regulations and taxation.

The production travelled to Portugal, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, UK, France, and the Arctic to interview dozens of climate activists, experts, politicians, lobby groups, shipowners and health professionals. We wanted to know the answer to one question. In the age of the climate crisis, are the shipping industry and the IMO serious in their efforts to reduce emissions?

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A world leader in pollution

There is no doubt, even in the minds of its most ardent proponents, that shipping pollutes on a grand scale. The global fleet of more than 50,000 vessels – container ships, cruise ships, tankers - produces over a gigatonne of greenhouse gases a year. Its output is growing. Critics say that if shipping was a country, it would be the sixth-largest polluter in the world, ahead of Germany.

Shipping's high pollution is down to its fuel. ‘Bunker fuel,’ or heavy fuel oil, is chemical waste, sludge left from the refining of gasoline and diesel. In the 1960s, the oil industry found a customer: shipping. After coal, bunker fuel is the dirtiest and cheapest fuel on the planet to burn, used only by ships or to pave roads. It is tax free and almost unregulated.

Burning bunker fuel produces CO2 emissions most of all. The rest is a cocktail of harmful gases, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur oxides (SOx), and particulate matters, like black carbon, known as ‘soot.’ Exposure to these substances causes respiratory diseases, cancers, and other health problems.

Dr. Francisco Ferreira of Lisbon-based environmental NGO Zero says, “We use fossil fuels to actually power all those activities [of ships]. And that means emissions of ultrafine particles that are particularly dangerous because they are so small that they go immediately through our lungs.”

The EU says that ship emissions cause 50,000 deaths a year in Europe. Global deaths vary between 250,000 and 400,000. One study states that “most deaths occur near coastlines in Europe, East Asia and South Asia.”

In 2016, the United Nations ratified the Paris Agreement, a binding international treaty that committed nation states and industries to reducing emissions. Shipping was exempt; as it was from the Kyoto agreement a decade earlier.

In 2020, after years of consultation with the industry, the UN’s International Maritime Organisation introduced a sulphur cap on bunker fuel to reduce sulphur content from 3.5% to around 0.5%. This is still between 100 and 500 times more toxic than the diesel used in cars.

Ships could switch to a new bunker fuel, called Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oil. Or burn the old fuel and install scrubbers, exhaust cleaning systems that filter out sulphur and dump it into the ocean. Environmental groups and experts warn that scrubbers are false solutions, and convert air pollution into water pollution.

But the IMO measures were notable for what they left out; the shipping regulator ignored the majority of the industry’s emissions, CO2, the particulate matters, and toxins.

Faig Abbasov is the shipping programme director of Transport & Environment (T&E), a Brussels-based NGO that campaigns for clean transport. He agrees that SOx was a major pollutant that needed urgent action.

“We have calculated that a few ships can emit more sulphur emissions, sulphur oxide emissions, than millions of passenger cars in Europe in a year. So these are the problems that have been ignored,” he says, from T&E’s offices, a few metres from the European Parliament.

Calm and articulate, Abbasov knows the ins and outs of the shipping industry, and the risks it poses. For Abbasov, it is as if the European Union had 28 rather than 27 member states.

“The last member state is shipping. The sector is so big, its emissions are so massive, that you can treat it as a country,” he tells The Black Sea. “This is what's at stake. You cannot have a zero carbon continent by forgetting one member state, otherwise the efforts made elsewhere will be undone. And that is what we are afraid of.”

Ancient coastlines, modern diseases

The Italian port town of Civitavecchia is an hour northwest of Rome, on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea of the Mediterranean. Its name translates to “ancient town” and its harbour was first constructed almost 2,000 years ago. Over the centuries, the Byzantines, Papal States, and French occupied it, all recognising its strategic importance.

Today, Civitavecchia, a town of 55,000, serves 22 million cruise passengers each year, making it the second-busiest terminal in Europe and the eighth in the world.

Before COVID 19, massive cruise ships, floating villages carrying thousands of passengers, docked into the port daily. As tourists headed to the sights of Rome or Florence, the ships stayed, their engines running, sometimes for days, until the passengers returned.

Throughout most of 2020, there were no tourists. The ships, several belonging to the world’s biggest cruise companies, the American Carnival and Italian-Swiss Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), remained.

So did the pollution. For the cruise ships to stay powered, even without passengers, the engines must remain on. Some ports have the infrastructure to provide electricity to idle ships. Civitavecchia, like most in the EU, does not. So dozens of ships, at the time of writing, burn fuel day and night and belch toxic fumes into the Civitavecchia air.

A 2019 study into the town's pollution levels, by the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, in Rome, says that the IMO's sulphur cap and the use of Low Sulphur fuels “do not prevent release of pollutants as ultra-fine particles, and black carbon.”

It says the dirty air resulted in a “31% increase in mortality due to lung cancer and a 51% increase due to neurological diseases for people residing within 500m from the port area.”

Riccardo Petrarolo, a climate change activist with No al Fosile, an environmental NGO, knows the studies and academic literature on Civitavecchia, but for he and his colleagues the issue is more personal.

“Behind these numbers, behind these data, in a city like Civitavecchia, there are the faces and the eyes and memories of so many loved ones who are no longer here,” he tells the Black Sea. “The presence of so many ships that have engines on 24 hours a day means imposing a punishment on Civitavecchia that is constant.”

The youth movements fighting climate change, like Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future, are not yet strong in Civitavecchia, Riccardo tells us. But they have begun to reach out to those in other cities.

Cities like Genoa.

A Growing Resistance

To the north of Civitavecchia, on Italy’s Riviera, is Genoa, the most famous historical port city in the country. The maritime industry takes over all the city centre coastline. To the east is a ship repair site. In the centre the harbour, with yachts, restaurants, and the cruise ship terminal. And further to the west are the docks, where freighters unload cargo.

Giant cruise ships and ferries idle in the ports day and night. As with Civitavecchia, their engines run ceaselessly.

Dr. Valerio Gennaro is an epidemiologist and an oncologist who graduated from University of Genoa as a specialist in oncology, hygiene and preventive medicine. He completed his Post Doctorate in Environmental Sciences at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. During his career and since his retirement he studied the effect of pollution on human health.

Gennaro, a slight man with a friendly manner, tells us his aim is not to only treat disease but to understand its causes and help the population avoid getting ill in the first place.

Today, he devotes considerable time to help local youth movements. He provides scientific evidence to the young Genoese, laying out the local effects of pollution. One of his studies highlights areas in Genoa where the population death rates are higher than average. They are, he says, those close to the port area where poorer people live.

He tells us that the local authorities ignored his findings. “They don't want to see,” he says, and explains that the authorities are “too strongly connected with the harbour business.”

Two bright and energetic activists, Francesca Ghio and Irene Ghezzi, arrive at Grand Hotel Savoia, where we are interviewing Dr Gennaro. They greet him warmly and tell us how he helps them push Genoa's authorities to take scientific evidence on its pollution levels seriously.

Francesca, 26, inspired by Greta Thunberg’s school strike and the Fridays for Future movement, organised Genoa’s first large climate protests, in 2019, which attracted tens of thousands.


Francesca Ghia (in Green) at the first Friday for Future rally in Genoa.

As with all Fridays for Future groups, the Genoese are concerned with the global climate crisis, but remain acutely aware of local problems, such as the health risks from the city’s reliance on shipping.

“We have a lot of risk and damage from the port,” Francesca says. “It's about the air that we breathe and it's about damage that probably we will discover in the future.”

Francesca’s colleague, Irene, is a 22-year-old student from Arezzo, Tuscany. In a city dominated by the shipping industry, theirs is not a simple task. “Every time we try to move together to change or to improve [the problems], we are faced with politics,” says Irene. “It was like a wall. It is not possible to create communication [about shipping], it’s like a secret topic.”

After their protest in the summer of 2019, Fridays for Future delivered a list of demands to the city authorities, controlled since 2017 by the right-wing independent, Mayor Marco Bucci (for the previous 40 years Genoa elected leftists).

The seven-point plan asked the city to acknowledge the climate crisis and commit to ban single-use plastics. Then it asked for a ban on fossil fuels at the port, and for its electrification, so that ships must “plug in” when docked.

Francesca says the authorities agreed to sign the letter, but only if they dropped the port demands. The group argued but the city remained adamant.

“We had to do it,” says Francesca. “Because it was the only way to [have] them sign the document.”

Wider implications

The toxins that cause health problems in port towns like Genoa, Civitavecchia, and the thousands of others around the world, cause global warming. The IMO’s own figures show that, for the six-year period to 2012, ships accounted for 3% of the world’s carbon emissions, 15% of its NOx, and 13% of its SOx.

Shipping is a global business and its contributions to climate change takes effect all over the world.

Nineteen-year-old Varisa Phothisat believes that those effects are plain to see in the Arctic where she lives. The leader of environmental group, Natur og Ungdom (“Nature and Youth”) in Svalbard, a group of Norwegian islands close to North Pole, Varisa and her friends raise local awareness about the consequences of the climate crisis.

“I've been living here for 13 years, right. And my first birthday I celebrated in Svalbard was September 19, 2007. And it was snowing outside in the window… it was, like, a lot of snow,” she said, talking to us in her family home in Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s largest city with around 2500 inhabitants. “And now my birthday is just... no snow whatsoever. The mountains are green.”


Varisa Phothisat, who started the "Nature and Youth" environmental organisation in Svalbard. (Kristoffer Kumar)

For Varisa, the changes are more than cosmetic. Accelerated climate changes in the Arctic cause unprecedented weather events. Avalanches and landslides occur more often, and many expect the frequency to increase in the coming years, as the Arctic warms faster than anywhere else on Earth.

Social scientist, Dr Siri Veland, from the Nordland Research Institute in Bodø, Norway, has for the past few years researched changes in the Arctic climate, sea ice and local societies.

“What we're seeing in the Arctic is that environmental changes are happening about twice as quickly as in other parts of the world. And that's a process that we've called Arctic amplification,” she says. She explains how black carbon impacts the Arctic in a special and drastic way: “When spreading soot on the snow, it darkens. And so, the radiation from the sun is going to be absorbed. And when that radiation is absorbed, it gets transformed into heat.”

The team of Bryan Comer, environmental scientist and the director of the marine program at International Council of Clean Transport (ICCT), found that black carbon emissions from ships increased more than ten times between 2015 and 2019. “This is an increase in exactly where you don’t want additional black carbon,” he says. “Because when ships are sailing near the Arctic, the black carbon that they emit is ending up in the lower atmosphere and it makes it easier to deposit on the Arctic snow and ice.”

Black carbon has 37-times the effect on Arctic climate than CO2, but, unlike CO2, is what scientists call a short-lived climate forcer.

“If you can avoid emitting more of it”, Comer explains, “You can have an immediate reduction in the amount of warming that's happening today. So it can buy you additional time and prevent climate tipping points from occurring.”

"We do this business for thousands of years.”

Ancient myths tell us that Zeus, the king of the gods, determined that the centre of the world was in Greece. The modern maritime industry has come to the same conclusion. Greece is currently the world’s largest ship-owning nation by tonnage. Greeks constitute over half of the European maritime fleet and more than 20% of the global fleet.

This is where you find some of the most ardent and influential supporters of the industry. While none denies climate change, they do resist efforts to reverse it. They are supportive of the IMO's regulatory touch, and disdainful if others interfere in what they see as complicated matters.

The Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation is a cultural centre located in central Athens. It is where we interview its founder, Panos Laskaridis, one of two brothers behind Lavinia Corporation and Laskaridis Shipping. He is patriarch of a family whose wealth is not known. Much of their assets are outside of Greece. Local media estimate that Lavinia is worth about a billion dollars.

Confident and matter-of-fact, Laskaridis, the former VP of European Community Shipowners' Associations, a powerful lobby group, admits there is a climate problem that concerns many young people, but that “the world is not a perfect world.” He says environmentalists are “zealots” and Greta Thunberg “is a business… controlled by her parents.”

“You know, we Greeks, we strongly believe, and most of the time we are right, that we know things better than most other people. And you know why we think that?” Laskaridis asks. “Because we do this business for thousands of years.”

Laskaridis’s answer to the climate crisis for shipping is “slow-steaming”; travelling at a slower speed, burning drastically less fuel. “By cutting speed, you get huge percentages [of cut in emissions] immediately and very easily without any effort,” he says.

George Prokopiu, a prominent shipping billionaire and owner of Dynacom Tankers, agrees that the IMO should support slow steaming. “Overnight measure from day one to day two is a reduction of speed,” he says. “Reduction of speed reduces by half all emissions, CO2, particulate matter.”

It sounds simple. Except for the fact that ships are already going slower to save money. “After the 2008 financial crisis, the phenomenon called ‘slow steaming’ took over,” says Bryan Comer of ICCT. “[But] based on our research, the speed reductions that we've seen after the financial crisis are still in place today. So there hasn't been a big rebound in speeds.”

The Greek shipping industry is a vital pillar of the Greek economy. A study by Deloitte concluded that the industry contributed €11 billion - 6.6% - to the country’s Gross Domestic Product in 2019. Laskaridis believes that Greece gets more from the relationship than the shipping industry.

“There is nothing that a shipowner would gain from Greece. No cargo from Greece, no contracts from Greece. Nothing in Greece. Only his offices, that's all,” he insists to the Black Sea. "He can shit on the prime minister if he wants."

The Greek Minister of Shipping Ioannis Plakiotakis disagreed, when we put Laskaridis’ comments to him.

“The Greek government has formed the stable institutional framework for the Greek shipping industry”, he says. “The Greek miracle there was, and there still there is, a great synergy between the government, the shipowners, and the seafarers.”

We visited the ministry at its offices at the port of Piraeus to talk to Plakiotakis. Weeks before agreeing to the interview, the communications staff insisted on some questions. As the cameras were set up, they roll in a large TV with their prepared answers and then provide a hard copy to Plakiotakis.


Greek Minister of Shipping Ioannis Plakiotakis interviewed during the production of Black Trail

The interview began cordially. Plakiotakis calls himself “The most important minister worldwide, in terms of shipping.”

Reading from his notes, Plakiotakis tells us that Greece and his ministry are “fully committed” to ‘green’ policies. He insists that the IMO was “doing an excellent job” and cautions against any regional regulations: “You cannot afford to harm the competitiveness of medium-sized shipping companies.”

Unlike Greek shipowners, however, he offers no solutions to reduce shipping emissions further than respecting the IMO’s role as sole regulator of the industry. As the questions evolve into the urgency of the climate crisis, and his role as a minister, he searches for answers among his prepared remarks, and then declares: “I’m not an environmentalist. I'm a politician. Do not confuse.” After the interview, his angered staff accuse journalists of trying to embarrass the minister by going off-script.

Not all Greeks are against tighter regulation of the shipping industry. Dr Dimitra Vini, a Piraeus paediatrician, became an activist after years of witnessing the effects of the port on the population’s health. “My life and my love for my city pushed me to get involved,” she says.

She shows us an elementary school a few hundred meters away from the harbour. “The children have health problems. They breathe emissions. Cruise ships are so near our schools, it’s criminal." No help comes from the government, she says, and calls Greek Shipping Minister Plakiotakis “a joke and a slave of money and ships.”

Representation without taxation

Shipping’s special status extends beyond climate change policy. It receives very favourable treatment when it comes to taxes. Bunker fuel is tax exempt, seafarers pay no income tax (though have very few worker protections), and corporate taxes are almost nonexistent. But how much revenue do states lose?

Olaf Merk of the International Transport Forum (ITF) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) wanted to find out. He collected financial records of around one hundred major shipping companies, hoping to “put a number on” the industries’ tax burden.

His findings are noteworthy.

“On average, the tax rate of the shipping industry is around 7% percent of their profits, which is well below the average OECD rate for corporate tax income, which is around 24%,” Merk says. “Then there are certain sectors where this is particularly low. For example, the cruise sector, we found out that on average their tax rate is 0%, basically.”

One of the reasons the shipping sector can pay less to state coffers is the ‘tonnage tax’ scheme. Designed by Greece in the 1970s, tonnage tax is offered by many countries in the EU and around the world, and with the number growing, especially in recent years.

How does it work? Instead of paying taxes on its profits, shipping companies pay on ‘net weight’ - the “space” within a ship. Governments and industry figures says the scheme simplifies taxes. It can also create tax rates for companies that are almost zero.

Much of the industries’ operations hide in secretive jurisdictions, so it is not always possible to get financial accounts. We were able to analyse records of the Preziosa, a luxury 333-meter-long cruise vessel of MSC, the biggest cruise enterprise in Europe. Preziosa Cruise Limited in the UK owns the ship.

In 2018 and 2019 (the records available), Preziosa Cruise Limited generated €44 million of profit - around €22 million each year. Under the UK’s tonnage tax scheme, Preziosa Cruise paid only €36,000 in taxes, €18,000 per year.

This is a rate of 0.08%. A UK business would have paid around €10 million in corporate taxes, and an individual over €20 million.

MSC's Executive Vice President, Bud Darr, declined to comment about its tax affairs during a filmed interview in Geneva, where the company is headquartered.

As the number of countries offering tonnage tax grows, ”the risk,” says Merk, “is a race to the bottom.” His study found that over half of shipping firms failed to pay any taxes at all, though he adds it might be unfair to blame only the companies.

“They are simply using systems that exist,” he told us. Governments must reverse the systems that allow shipping to pay such low taxes - or use these “subsidies”, as he calls them, to offset the ecological damage the industry causes.

A European solution?

A common statement from interviewees is that “the IMO is the only global regulator of shipping”. Those not IMO - environmentalists, experts, nation states - are unwelcome. In recent years, the European Union began to make serious efforts to address the industry’s environmental issues.

After the election of the new European Commission in 2019, its new President Ursula von Der Leyen pledged to impose a “European Green New Deal” to force radical cuts to greenhouse gases and emissions. Europe would, she said, become a zero-carbon continent by 2050.

For the first time, a green effort included ships. The first proposed legislation was to include shipping’s emissions in the EU’s carbon credit system, the Emissions Trading Scheme, the ETS. Companies must buy carbon credits to exceed limits, making the prospect of newer vessels and higher-quality fuels cheaper to them.

Jutta Paulus, the German Green Party MEP, and the EU rapporteur for shipping, designed the bill. Last September, we interviewed Paulus as she prepared for the vote in the EU parliament.

A chemist by education, Paulus had no experience in the shipping sector before her appointment in July 2019. When the role was announced, she says she simply “put up her hand.” Hers was a significant challenge: legislating an industry that liked to remain untouched.

As one maritime company CEO said, “At the heart of the problem is the way we have built this industry in the past… to be in the shadows, to try to be discreet, to try to be forgotten in fact and that is for the reasons no one wanted to pay tax, no one wanted to be heavily regulated.”

As Paulus and her all-female team prepared nervously for the debate and vote, insiders began to suggest strong opposition or stall tactics from France and Greece. But after the first round of voting it was clear the bill had popular support across party lines.

Traditional supporters of the shipping industry voted in favour of the new legislation, a sign of changed attitudes towards the climate crisis.

Danish MEP Pernille Weiss argued that the bill needed a more extensive impact assessment before the vote. “You do not include a whole sector, a whole industry in the ETS system without a proper impact assessment,” she told The Black Sea. “That’s bad legislation.”

Yet in the end Weiss, whose EU campaign received payments from the lobby group Danish Shipping, and the MEPs from France and Greece, voted in favour of the regulations.

The legislation passed. When Paulus tweeted the achievement, a young climate activist from Germany replied: “It’s not enough”.

A “hijacked” regulator?

The IMO is well aware of shipping’s environmental record. It published four studies on the issue since 2000; the most recent ones in 2014 and 2020. They showed that instead of a reduction, ship emissions have grown by 10% since 2008, and will continue to grow without radical reforms.

Critics maintain that the IMO lacks the will to regulate and the industry has captured it to serve its interests. “You can call it the fox being in charge of the henhouse,” says Faig Abbasov of T&E. “This UN body has been captured, or rather hijacked.”

The IMO has no legal responsibility towards transparency. It governs by consensus, often issuing non-binding decisions. The delegates are member states supported by interested parties. Though environmental NGOs attend meetings and provide evidence, the bulk of advisors are from the shipping sector, or lawyers and lobbyists acting on its behalf. The IMO has expelled observers who criticise the industry, as happened to Greenpeace in 2009.

The IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) in November 2020 aimed to bring it in line with the climate goals of the Paris agreement - a reduction in CO2 intensity this decade and by 50% overall by 2050. It was also an opportunity for the IMO to show that it deserves its role as sole regulator of shipping, and it does not need the likes of the EU to do its job for it.

One these counts, it failed. Despite the climate and weather extremes of 2020 and record CO2 emissions, the IMO agreed to impose only short-term, non-binding solutions.

Its measures do not reduce CO2 emissions, but, in fact, sees them rise over the next ten years. Less a cut in emissions outright, the IMO resolutions restrict the growth rate of emissions. By how much? One percentage point versus “business as usual”.

This means that if the shipping industry implements no green strategies, its greenhouse gas output will rise by 15% by 2030. The IMO’s December plan makes this a 14% rise: one percentage point lower.

Some delegates accused the IMO of “greenwashing”. Even formerly pro-shipping member states, like the Marshall Islands, itself on the brink of extinction due to sea level rises, expressed its growing alarm: “The science is clear, and it has only become clearer...” they said. “We must be doing more if we are to avert the worst effects of climate catastrophe. This proposal is not faithful to the promises we made two years ago…”

Such warnings gained little ground with heavyweight shipping nations like Russia and China. The IMO resolutions passed.

“Excellencies, distinguished delegates and observers,” said the IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim, smiling, as he wrapped up the environmental committee. “All of you must be exhausted and tired. I would have liked to deliver a portion of a pizza to all of you, to comfort you for your extraordinary effort.”

After the vote, John Maggs, President of Clean Shipping Coalition, told us that “Our very worst expectations happened. They chose to do effectively nothing.”

Dr Tristan Smith, a scientist at University College London’s Energy Institute, says that the IMO’s measures do not meet any of the Paris Agreement goals. “[These goals] cannot be achieved,” he says, “because regulations the IMO is implementing are too weak to ensure that we do not have rises of [greenhouse gas] emissions from shipping over the coming decade.”

Smith, who participated in the IMO’s climate change studies, argues that only drastic cuts can prevent a bleak future: “In the context of Covid, the global greenhouse gas emissions this year have reduced about 8 to 9 per cent,” he says. “We would need to do that every year, for this decade, just to be in line with the 1.5 degrees objective [of Paris Agreement]”.

This is why, he believes, the IMO’s short-term measures fall short: “In practice, it doesn't matter whether the [shipping] emissions stay constant or they grow by 250%. Neither is compatible with achieving a 50% reduction by 2030 and a zero emission objective by 2050.”

The UN as a whole sees the climate crisis as an urgent matter to tackle. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres targeted shipping in his State of the Planet speech at Columbia University a few weeks before the IMO meeting: “We need to see enforceable regulatory and fiscal steps so that the shipping industry can deliver its commitments. Otherwise, the net-zero ship will have sailed.”

We contacted the IMO many times for an official interview with its secretary-general Kitack Lim. They refused. The IMO wanted us to clarify if we were “looking for a negative angle.” Even with promising a fair interview, our discussions went nowhere. So we went to the secretary-general’s home, in London.

Surprised, Lim said to us: “Everyone knows about [climate change] but there are different views in terms of how to handle [it].”

He told us we should ask for an interview through his chief of staff. We did several times. We never got a reply.

Meanwhile, the gap between the rhetoric of the industry and the concerns of the next generation grows wider.

During the production, we interviewed John Platsidakis, former head of Intercargo, a prominent European lobby group. We asked him if the shipping industry needs better regulations to protect the environment. He replied, “Are you prepared to stop world trade?”

Disruptions to supply chains can be serious. When a single container ship, the Ever Given, ground to a halt in the Suez Canal in March, the most influential maritime journal, Lloyd’s List, estimated it was holding up $9.6 billion worth of trade each day.

For young people around the world, climate change is at least as serious an issue. In Svalbard a few weeks ahead of the IMO November meeting, we asked 19-year-old Varisa what she would say to organisations and companies who wish to delay climate change policies for the sake of world trade.

“It's urgent. It will always be urgent until it's not,” she said. “At the end, there will be nothing to take from, there will be no countries to ship to… you will have nothing left if you continue like this.”

Additional reporting by Micael Pereira (Expresso), Nikolas Leontopoulos (Reporter United), Myrto Boutsi (Reporters United), Julien Chiffelle (RTS), Runa Engen (VG), Margot Gibbs (Finance Uncovered) and Giulio Rubino.

Animations by Alexia Barakou and Animations Sound Design by Aris Athanasopoulos

This investigation was supported by grants from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund and

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