Category: Environment

Researchers on UN Maritime Organization: “At the moment, it’s working against its own green transition”


The UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) is actively contributing to the shipping industry being far off course from ever reaching its climate goals. In large part, this is because the organization lacks funding and expertise. Without strengthening the IMO, any transition of the enormous industry is hazily imaginable. This, according to the Copenhagen and Lund university researchers behind a new study of the organization.

Three percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions is attributable to the shipping industry. And things remain headed in the wrong direction – with CO2 emissions from ships continuing to rise year after year. This has increased pressure on the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO), the international body responsible for regulating the global shipping sector. Criticism that the IMO is too slow to regulate greenhouse gases from ships comes from corners of the industry itself, as well as from governments, NGOs and other actors.

From July 3-7, the IMO will review its strategy and most likely set more ambitious climate targets than its current ones, which are not yet aligned with the Paris Agreement. However, researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Lund University point out that new goals alone are insufficient.

“More ambitious climate targets are fine. But the problem is that the IMO doesn’t even have the political instruments needed to achieve its former objectives. So, we need to understand why the IMO is so short on success in this area. Because if nothing happens, this enormous industry will account for a larger and larger share of global CO2 emissions,” says Professor Teis Hansen of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food and Resource Economics.

Consequently, he and fellow researcher Hanna Bach from Lund University scrutinized why the organization is slow in getting the transition started. In their study, they mapped how IMO rules were developed and interviewed IMO employees and various stakeholders.

At odds with their own political goals

The study points to an organization with too little engine power. This has resulted in an international regulatory body without the ability to be forward thinking and unable to manage new types of marine fuels and other technologies, such as batteries and wind assisted propulsion technologies. 

“Our research shows that throughout the IMO’s history, the focus has only been on preexistent technologies. In other words, they simply regulate the fuels already being used by the industry. In this way, you regulate retroactively. At the same time, the IMO has no regulation that directly promotes the use of more sustainable fuels, which is what we need,” says Hanna Bach.

On the contrary, the organization’s goal of reducing air pollution from ships, which mainly consists of sulfur and nitrogen oxides emissions, has pushed development in the wrong direction:

“Until now, the IMO focused on air pollution instead of greenhouse gases. This created an imbalanced legal framework, which in practice, has meant tethering the industry to fossil fuels,” says Teis Hansen, who elaborates:

 “With current regulation, the IMO promotes liquefied natural gas as marine fuel because it can reduce sulfur and nitrogen emissions. However, LNG use has contributed to a 150 percent jump in methane emissions – a figure that will increase because more and more liquefied natural gas-powered ships are being ordered. As such, the IMO is working against its own political goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”


  • Shipping currently accounts for three percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The IMO’s own projections demonstrate that the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions could increase fifty percent by 2050 if emissions growth is not curbed.
  • The IMO adopted the first greenhouse gas reduction strategy for shipping in 2018. Among other things, the strategy aims to, at a minimum, halve the shipping industry’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Thus, the goal is not aligned with the Paris Agreement’s requirement to be climate neutral by 2050.
  • The European Commission has decided to include the maritime sector in the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) from 2024, which means that the EU shipping industry will have to report all emissions.

Send more money, please

Roughly 300 people are currently employed at the International Maritime Organization’s London headquarters. This corresponds to approximately 5% of the employees in a medium sized Danish municipality.. To begin with, turning things around requires increased organizational capacity. The researchers point out:

“The secretariat needs more resources. Both with regards to an expanded workforce and for administering other types of political instruments than the ones they have today. This could include a global carbon tax, a global fund to support the transition to green fuels and other types of financial support to promote the use of green technologies,” says Hanna Bach. 

According to the researchers, the IMO secretariat is generally short on staff, but also lacks people with the right expertise.

“We interviewed one IMO official who stated, ‘We don’t have the capacity to follow all of the different technologies, and we don’t have the capacity to make good financing decisions in terms of what to support and what not to support.’ That’s remarkable,” notes Teis Hansen. 

The IMO’s murky mandate

In two research articles published in the journals Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions and Marine Policy, the researchers identify even more reasons why the IMO is so reluctant to steer its way onto a greener course. This includes a lack of political consensus among the 175 member states, as well as an unclear mandate:

“There are member states that ask whether the implementation of instruments such as a global carbon tax is actually within the IMO mandate or whether it conflicts with national law. However, the IMO secretariat hasn’t been able to provide a clear answer to this. So, it is constantly up for debate, which consumes a lot of time and stalls negotiations when it comes to implementing new policy instruments,” says Hanna Bach.

In general, the IMO needs to be organized better if we are to hope for a global transformation of shipping,” says Teis Hansen, who concludes:

“History shows that we cannot simply rely on the IMO itself to regulate this area in a way that follows their own strategy. To ensure this, we need to look at whether we can strengthen the IMO by organizing the institution better.”


  • The IMO (International Maritime Organization) was established in 1958 as a specialized agency under the United Nations for the regulation of international maritime relations. The IMO negotiates and adopts international rules to promote maritime safety and environmental protection, among other things.
  • Strategically, the IMO’s work is directed by the IMO Council and Assembly. The Council is the governing body of the IMO, which continuously prioritises and coordinates work. The Council consists of 40 member states. The IMO’s highest decision-making body is the Assembly, which consists of all member states. The Assembly adopts resolutions and approves the IMO’s overall strategic direction and budget. Moreover, this is where the Council is elected. (Source: Danish Maritime Authority.)

Source: University of Copenhagen

Gloomy climate calculation: Scientists predict a collapse of the Atlantic ocean current to happen mid-century


Important ocean currents that redistribute heat, cold and precipitation between the tropics and the northernmost parts of the Atlantic region will shut down around the year 2060 if current greenhouse gas emissions persist. This is the conclusion based on new calculations from the University of Copenhagen that contradict the latest report from the IPCC.

Contrary to what we may imagine about the impact of climate change in Europe, a colder future may be in store. In a new study, researchers from the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute and Department of Mathematical Sciences predict that the system of ocean currents which currently distributes cold and heat between the North Atlantic region and tropics will completely stop if we continue to emit the same levels of greenhouse gases as we do today.

Using advanced statistical tools and ocean temperature data from the last 150 years, the researchers calculated that the ocean current, known as the Thermohaline Circulation or the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), will collapse – with 95 percent certainty – between 2025 and 2095. This will most likely occur in 34 years, in 2057, and could result in major challenges, particularly warming in the tropics and increased storminess in the North Atlantic region.

“Shutting down the AMOC can have very serious consequences for Earth’s climate, for example, by changing how heat and precipitation are distributed globally. While a cooling of Europe may seem less severe as the globe as a whole becomes warmer and heat waves occur more frequently, this shutdown will contribute to an increased warming of the tropics, where rising temperatures have already given rise to challenging living conditions,” says Professor Peter Ditlevsen from the Niels Bohr Institute.

“Our result underscores the importance of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible,” says the researcher.

Map illustrating the AMOC ocean current
The AMOC (Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation), is very important for the redistribution of heat from the tropics to the northern parts of the Atlantic. Photo: Getty

The calculations, just published in the renowned scientific journal, Nature Communications, contradict the message of the latest IPCC report, which, based on climate model simulations, considers an abrupt change in the thermohaline circulation very unlikely during this century.

Early warning signals present

The researchers’ prediction is based on observations of early warning signals that ocean currents exhibit as they become unstable. These Early Warning Signals for the Thermohaline Circulation have been reported previously, but only now has the development of advanced statistical methods made it possible to predict just when a collapse will occur.

The researchers analysed sea surface temperatures in a specific area of the North Atlantic from 1870 to present days. These sea surface temperatures are “fingerprints” testifying the strength of the AMOC, which has only been measured directly for the past 15 years.

“Using new and improved statistical tools, we’ve made calculations that provide a more robust estimate of when a collapse of the Thermohaline Circulation is most likely to occur, something we had not been able to do before,” explains Professor Susanne Ditlevsen of UCPH’s Department of Mathematical Sciences.

The thermohaline circulation has operated in its present mode since the last ice age, where the circulation was indeed collapsed. Abrupt climate jumps between the present state of the AMOC and the collapsed state has been observed to happen 25 times in connection with iceage climate. These are the famed Dansgaard-Oeschger events first observed in ice cores from the Greenlandic ice sheet. At those events climate changes were extreme with 10-15 degrees changes over a decade, while present days climate change is 1.5 degrees warming over a century.

About the study:

The work is supported by TiPES, a joint-European research collaboration focused on tipping points of the climate system. The TiPES project is an EU Horizon 2020 interdisciplinary climate research project focused on tipping points in the climate system.

Furthermore, funding was provided by Novo Nordisk Foundation; and European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement, “Economic Policy in Complex Environments (EPOC).

Facts about the ocean current

  • The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is part of a global system of ocean currents. By far, it accounts for the most significant part of heat redistribution from the tropics to the northernmost regions of the Atlantic region – not least to Western Europe.
  • At the northernmost latitudes, circulation ensures that surface water is converted into deep, southbound ocean currents. The transformation creates space for additional surface water to be moved northward from equatorial regions. As such, thermohaline circulation is critical for maintaining the relatively mild climate of the North Atlantic region.

Source: University of Copenhagen