By ALISON LOWE
AS a small island state, The Bahamas is often subject to the whims of other nations. It’s rare that we get to impact world affairs.
Yet last month we did. In fact, we had what’s likely to be an historic impact on the course of climate change. So why is no one talking about it?
I’ve got some ideas. And I think a few people have some explaining to do. But first, let’s set the scene.
There are few issues in the world today with more potential to impact The Bahamas than changing weather patterns and rising sea levels resulting from climate change. We’ve felt its destructive power most recently with the passage of Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Matthew. We’ve seen Eleuthera cracked in two by surging seas. We don’t need a PhD in climate science to see that coastal erosion, coral bleaching and flooding are all becoming more evident. If the sea level were to rise five feet, 80 per cent of The Bahamas would be uninhabitable.
So we might think that on this topic, our government would be making its voice heard in our defence. You might think we’d be singing from the same hymn sheet as those other small island nations loudly calling for stronger, faster action to reduce the carbon emissions that threaten our existence.
Quite to the contrary. We have succeeded in leading the agenda on climate change - but in all the wrong ways. And we’ve placed ourselves in opposition to, rather than solidarity with, our fellow small island states who have rightly called for emission cuts to take precedence over shipping interests and government revenue.
To fully appreciate the significance of what’s happened we need to take a closer look at the shipping industry. Ships carry 90 per cent of world trade but there has been no regulation of their carbon emissions. Container ship fuel has 3,500 times more Sulphur than car diesel. It’s responsible for a full three per cent of global carbon emissions - more than planes.
While other sectors have succumbed to pressure to commit to emissions reductions, shipping has long dodged such targets. The sector was excluded from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The International Maritime Organisation, the UN division responsible for global shipping, the body charged with handling carbon emissions from marine fuels, wasn’t doing much handling.
You might think this is likely to be yet another area where The Bahamas is vulnerable to the agendas of the global community. Yet that’s not necessarily the case. Besides being among the top five states considered most vulnerable to the climate change that these emissions are exacerbating, The Bahamas is also the sixth biggest registry and the sixth largest contributor to the International Maritime Organisation’s budget - depositing $1.2m in March 2018. This year, we were re-elected to the IMO Council. In this particular field, we’re an unusually big fish. We could help to move the needle on this issue. And we did.
The story went like this: under increasing pressure to act, the IMO finally approved a road map for curbing greenhouse gas emissions in October 2014. The road map would require shipping companies to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but not until 2023. The strategy needed fleshing out.
Hailed by environmental organisations for their leadership in this movement, the world’s third largest shipping registry, the Marshall Islands, responded by calling for 100 per cent decarbonisation by 2035. For good reason. The Pacific island state is a fellow Small Island Developing State and member of the Alliance of Small Island Development States - a grouping of countries considered by the UN to have similar sustainable development challenges, including vulnerability to natural disasters and fragile environments.
Their proposal isn’t a pipedream. An OECD study found that technology exists that would allow for the shipping industry to be decarbonised by 2035. The European Commission, also pointing to the OECD study, wanted the IMO to cut emissions by at least 70 and up to 100 per cent.
David Paul, the Marshall Islands’ minister of the environment, told BBC on April 12 this year that there was no conflict between the Marshall Islands’ position as a leading ship registry and its call for shipping emissions reductions.
“We don’t look at that as a problem, we really look at that as an opportunity, because right now we have a lot at stake, so I think we can influence the whole process. It is really about the very survival of our country. If your very survival is at stake then everything else is irrelevant,” said Mr Paul.
The submissions were all building up to an April 2018 meeting of the IMO where its future strategy on greenhouse gases would be determined. Then things took a troubling turn. The Bahamas, a natural ally of The Marshall Islands, took a different tack.
In September last year, we put forward a submission to the IMO opposing the Marshall Islands’ demands for more stringently regulate shipping emissions. The submission by Bahamian officials urged the organisation to commit “to the decarbonisation of international shipping” - but not until “the second half of the century”. We proposed cuts that would see emissions reduced to 50 per cent of 2008 levels by 2050.
The government of Belize, the International Chamber of Shipping, the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO) and the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTANKO) - three of the world’s biggest shipping industry federations - all got behind the Bahamian proposal. Panama, another large shipping registry, and Saudi Arabia, a major oil producer, also enthusiastically backed a watered down submission.
We were successful. If you can call it that. The IMO said the strategy agreed at the close of its April meeting envisions cuts of exactly the size proposed by The Bahamas. But critics say this is too little too late and would essentially give the industry a free pass for the next few decades, allowing emissions to grow dramatically in the meantime.
By 2020, shipping’s share of global emissions is expected to rise to 20 per cent.
This is not compatible with the internationally agreed goal of keeping global temperature increase to below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, which requires worldwide emissions to be at least halved from 1990 levels by 2050. It is certainly not compatible with the earlier campaign by SIDS, including the Bahamas’, for “1.5 to stay alive” - an acknowledgement that some nations will experience the adverse effects of global climate change at an increase of even 1.5 Celsius, let alone two.
The Bahamas’ evident influence over the outcome was not publicised in the Bahamian media. Not the outcome, or the justification for our position. Not before and not after. Why not, you might ask? If it was in our best interests one might think a press release announcing our achievement in swaying the global agenda would have been in order.
It’s not the first time The Bahamas has pushed back on attempts to regulate the sector - attempts which advocates said would have incentivised emissions reductions. In 2015, the IMO’s national delegates debated regulations that would have required the 50,000-strong global merchant fleet to provide data on their carbon footprint. Some big businesses, such as AstraZeneca, H&M and Volvo expressed an interest in knowing how green the ships are that carry their products, so they could tell their customers. They signed up to the Clean Shipping Index, a register showing the environmental performance of more than 2,000 ships from 50 carriers. But there was demand for all shipping companies to do better.
Yet while Norway, Ireland and several other countries supported this mandatory reporting, other countries - again including The Bahamas - objected that data from ships was commercially sensitive and should not be published. This was a serious road block given that it is flag states under which ships are registered who must implement regulations.
According to one publication which reported on the meeting, the negotiator for The Bahamas said he could not support publishing data that might be “badly misinterpreted” by third parties.
It’s not just the lack of publicity around the Bahamian input into these critically influential positions that should be scrutinised. It’s worth asking where these arguments fit when looked at in light of statements made by our elected officials on climate change and by the Bahamas Maritime Authority about the kind of business they want to attract.
The Bahamas Maritime Authority argues that it attracts the world’s premier shipping companies to its registry because it upholds stringent standards.
“We are totally committed to achieving and maintaining the highest possible international standards – in our fleet, from our crews, among our ship owners and of course from our staff, especially our teams of Inspectors worldwide,” says the BMA on its website.
It goes on to add that while growth of the register may be “gratifying” for the authority, its policy is not one of “growth at all costs”.
“Quite the contrary. The authority, like the Bahamas government, believes that standards should not be sacrificed in order to attract tonnage,” says the BMA.
While he has not spoken on this issue directly, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis’ comments on climate change would suggest he might agree on this point. At the 10th Caribbean Conference on Comprehensive Disaster Management (CDM) in December, Dr Minnis spoke of the extreme vulnerability of small island states to climate change and the economic, social, environmental and psychological toll that will stay with The Bahamas and the region for some time from the recent mega storms.
“Various climate models suggest that damage from natural disasters have increased sharply. Such damage is likely to worsen, especially from flooding,” he said, warning that “tropical storms are likely to bring: higher wind speeds; more precipitation; and bigger storm surge in the coming decades.”
Dr Minnis added: “As a region, we must continue to press through CARICOM, the Alliance of Small Island States, the United Nations and in other international forums, for the promised assistance from developing countries to help countries in our region to mitigate against the effects of climate change, overwhelmingly caused by developed countries.”
It’s also worth asking where our bid to postpone and water down emissions reduction targets fits with Minister of Transport Frankie Campbell’s statement in the wake of our re-election to the IMO Council late last year. Mr Campbell declared at the time that The Bahamas’ successful bid represented a significant achievement not only for the nation, “but also regionally for the Caribbean, and globally for small island developing states, for whom The Bahamas will strive to ensure equal representation during the international meetings.”
Is foregoing our long-term interests and this solidarity the price to pay to secure the roughly $17m in annual revenue that our shipping registry delivers for The Bahamas? Was our position related to efforts by the BMA to secure growth in the registry after a downturn in market conditions and increased competition from other countries?
And are we simply selling ourselves to the lowest bidder? Unfortunately, we can only speculate.
One answer might come in the form of a recent report by InfluenceMap, a London-based non-profit. It claims that the shipping industry has remained outside of the UN Paris Agreement on climate through “corporate capture” of the IMO.
Whether this is true or not, it’s time we had a conversation about whose interests are being represented at the international level by the unelected officials at the Bahamas Maritime Authority and whether this trade off over the movement of international trade is worth it. It’s time we had a debate about why we are choosing to not just back but lead with proposals to international bodies that run contrary to what is necessary to secure our survival. The BMA and the minister should be asked to account for their actions.
When contacted, Mr Campbell declined to comment and referred this newspaper to the BMA.
An attempt to seek comment via email from the BMA on the justification for its position was unsuccessful.
• Alison Lowe is a former Tribune news reporter and Nassau Guardian business editor. If you’d like to share your opinion on this article, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.