The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations which was founded in 1948 following a tradition of agreed maritime safety regulations from the 19th century. Coming from this tradition, maritime safety remains the agencies main concern. However, following the International Convention for the prevention of pollution of the sea by oil (OILPOL Convention) in 1958, marine pollution and environment became another major concern and topic of the agency. From 51 regulations adopted so far, 21 are directly environmental related.
The IMO is addressing issues in the fields of maritime safety and security, marine environment, as well as the human element of shipping and legal affairs, which fall under the United Nations Law of the sea excluding coastal state disputes. Hereby, its main role is to establish a regulatory framework for the shipping industry including commercially used ships as well as passenger ships.
The topic is of great interest because ships make up around 90% of global trade, as it is the most cost-efficient and statistically least environmental damaging way of transport -but also a main contributor to marine and atmospheric pollution.
Topic I: Combating marine pollution
In 2018 researchers have found microplastic and persistent hazardous chemicals in Antarctic water and thus proved that this kind of marine pollution has already reached remotest areas. A big role hereby is played by greywater, entering the oceans by polluted rivers and coastal areas.
Further, marine environment is facing other kinds of pollution, as noise and light pollution by ships, which is irritating marine mammals or pollution by oil which is threatening life above and inside the water. The topic has become so important that the Sustainable Development Goal 14 is dedicated to protect Life below water, where subpoint one to three are directly addressing marine pollution.
Shipping is playing a big role in this: The shipping industry is responsible for more than three percent of global carbon dioxide emissions and for eighteen percent of air pollutants in general. Despite there being regulations, which prohibit disposing into the sea, this remains a big problem.
However, overall eighty percent of overall marine pollution is coming from the land: by industrial greywater, poor waste disposal and other sources which is coming mostly from countries in Asia.
In 1973 the IMO adopted the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and has been amended since. It was followed by the London Protocol in 1996, which is joined by 51 parties. Also, the IMO upholds many technical cooperations to support regions to meet the goals of anti-pollution. The IMO remains concerned about the disposal of waste and other foreign matter into the oceans. Also, it is supporting efforts to make the ship industry sustainably more environmentally friendly by adapting new technologies. It has introduced measures to fight plastic litter from ships, but yet no strategy to fight existing microplastic.
Topic II: Improving working conditions and relieve responsibility of seafarers
The most important factor for the successful and safe operation with ships are the people working on board. On its website, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) states that: “The safety and security of life at sea, protection of the marine environment and over 90% of the world´s trade depends on the professionalism and competence of seafarers”. This statement shows the multi-dimensional nature of the topic since it includes ethical, environmental, and economic considerations.
Working on the sea exposes humans to several risks, and human failure can have severe consequences at the same time, thinking of oil pollution after ship accidents for example.
Therefore, the international community has taken action and agreed on several resolutions, such as the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) adopted 1978, and the International Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) from 1973. With almost all states that are members of the IMO having ratified these conventions, there is a global consent regarding the importance of the topic.
However, these standards exist, the implementation of them is a big challenge, especially in developing countries that often highly depend on fishery and sea trade, but lack of expertise and technology to fulfill them. Here lies the potential for exchange and international collaboration, for which the IMO provides the central international platform to discuss this issue.