Thirty years ago, Malta gained international credit for proposing that the United Nations take up the challenge of “conservation of climate”. Nowadays, Malta is criticised – even held up to shame – for lack of ambition in negotiations in the International Maritime Organisation on a strategy to limit climate-harming emissions from international shipping.

Malta’s 1988 initiative was the seed for broad intergovernmental responses to climate change. These ranged from the 1992 Framework Convention, recognising destabilisation of global climate by human activity, to the 2015 Paris Agreement, setting the collective aim of holding global temperature rise between 1.5°C and 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Yet, while this landmark agreement is gearing up for execution, Malta’s stance in IMO appears preoccupied with conserving not so much the climate as economic interests vested in its shipping registry.

Ships in international trade contribute some two per cent of annual global emissions of CO2 from fuel combustion – burning coal, oil and gas – the main source of atmospheric ‘greenhouse gases’ driving climate change. This puts shipping in the same ‘emission league’ as Germany, ranking higher than the likes of South Korea, Canada and Brazil.

One should no sooner consider absolving the shipping sector from working towards the Paris targets than one would demobilise such major economies.

Though the 1997 Kyoto Protocol tasked IMO with action on shipping emissions, its course has not been rushed. IMO is to adopt an ‘initial strategy’ this year leading to agreements in 2023 on specific policy measures. Negotiations resume tomorrow.

While States make decisions in IMO, the shipping industry is heavily influential.

The dichotomy between registration and ownership of vessels further complicates dynamics. Who is ultimately responsible for action on maritime emissions: flag States or shipowners?

This question is relevant to Malta, which has become a big fish in the registration pond but remains a minnow in ownership.

Ranked by tonnage under its flag, Malta lies sixth in a world list headed by Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands. These four fleets are almost entirely foreign-owned.

Among these States, only the Marshall Islands, facing the existential threat of sea level rise and championing the ambitious 1.5°C Paris target, has wrested its position in IMO from shipping industry interests.

The climatic demand on IMO this year is for clear and strong policy signals on its cruising speed towards emission targets consistent with the Paris Agreement. Negotiating positions range widely, however.

Farthest back, Brazil, China, India and South Africa reject any absolute cap on shipping emissions. Way ahead, the Marshall Islands urges zero emissions by 2035.

Japan, backed by industry lobbies, advocates 50 per cent reduction below 2008 emission levels by 2060. The USA is quiet.

Malta’s stance in IMO appears preoccupied with conserving not so much the climate as economic interests vested in its shipping registry

Within the EU – not a bloc in IMO – several Member States propose 70-100 per cent reduction below 2008 by 2050.

Malta, Greece and Cyprus are said to reject 100 per cent, while Italy and Portugal grumble. Backstage, the European Parliament urges unilateral EU action in response to perceived IMO delays.

Interestingly, a report by the OECD’s International Transport Forum, of which Malta is a member, has just stated that “maximum deployment of currently known technologies could [enable] almost complete decarbonisation of maritime shipping by 2035”.

Malta’s defence of its shipping registry, like its positions on financial services, tax competition, online gambling and so on, is a stance maintained by successive governments. This does not necessarily make it laudable.

Such positions arise from the dominant influence of perceived short-term economic benefits – “making hay”. They subordinate social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, to which both main political parties nevertheless pay homage. They skirt fundamental questions that democracy must pose: economic benefits for whom? And at what cost to future generations?

‘For whom’, in the case of shipping, points essentially to foreign owners.

Local stakeholders provide ancillary services. Are these interests being weighed against projections that, over decades ahead, climate change will dump increasing heatwaves and drought upon our islands?

Who among us would benefit from that?

Not our tourism industry, nor our farmers, nor our water and electricity systems, nor longer-living senior citizens…

So, with rough weather ahead – both climatic and political – what may one ask of Malta in the IMO negotiations?

Malta should assess its national interests, including its shipping registry, in the long-term perspective of sustainability.

It should project climatic ambition, work for EU consensus consistent with the Paris Agreement and stand with its EU fellows in exerting positive leverage.

Optimistically, one could imagine Malta combining its climatic and maritime know-how to launch a bold and visible unifying narrative in IMO, helping to bolster national reputation under stress.

Finally – returning to national economic benefits – our maritime policymakers and entrepreneurs should be alert to approaching opportunities in ‘green shipping’ and start adapting Malta’s ship-repairing, servicing and port facilities to technological innovation on the horizon.

It would be a shame, indeed, if our maritime flag were allowed to blindfold a proactive vision.

Michael Zammit Cutajar was engaged in the United Nations negotiations on climate change from 1991 to 2015 in various international and national capacities.


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