The U.N. agency regulating international shipping decided Friday that new cargo and transport vessels must meet energy efficiency standards and cut carbon pollution.
The decision by a powerful committee of the International Maritime Organization attacks a growing source of greenhouse gases and is the first measure on climate change to apply equally to countries regardless of whether they are from the industrial or developing world.
About 50,000 cargo ships carry 90 per cent of world trade, and most ships are powered by heavily polluting oil known as bunker fuels. The IMO says shipping was responsible for 2.7 percent of global carbon emissions in 2007, but that would double or even triple by mid-century if no action is taken.
Concluding a weeklong meeting, the IMO's Environment Protection Committee resolved that all ships built in the future must reduce pollution from today's average, according to an efficiency index for ships of varying sizes and types.
The new regulations say it will be up to the ship builders to decide how they would meet the new standards.
"As long as the required energy-efficiency level is attained, ship designers and builders would be free to use the most cost-efficient solutions for the ship to comply with the regulations," the resolution said.
But in a concession to developing countries, it deferred the measure for at least four years after it takes effect, probably next year or 2013.
In a further step to win support, it included a provision to promote the transfer of clean ship building technology to developing countries.
The committee also approved a new mechanism to monitor fleet performance to ensure compliance.
The IMO has 169 members, but fewer than half were eligible to vote on the pollution measures, which were adopted by 48-5 with several abstentions.
"This is a very positive and important first step for a truly global, binding measure to reduce CO2 emissions," Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner on climate action, said from Brussels.
Mark Lutes, who observed the proceedings for the Worldwide Fund for Nature, or WWF, said industrial countries and most developing countries favored the measures, but a hoped-for consensus proved elusive with objections from major countries like Brazil, China and India.
Small island states that lend their flags to merchant ships also were reluctant, since one way toward greater efficiency is to build larger ships that could prove too big for their port facilities.
"This is the first globally applied rule that the international community has come up with that regulates greenhouse gas emissions," said Lutes. But some countries were concerned that the universal application of the shipping rules undermined a cardinal principle of climate change negotiations that assigns greater responsibility to the wealthy countries whose industries created the global warming problem in the first place.
Under the new rules, ships contracted in the first five years after 2015 would have to improve fuel efficiency by 10 percent, and the standard would be tightened every subsequent five years. By 2030, a 30 percent reduction rate would be set for most types of ships, based on the average of those built between 1999 to 2009.
The committee also debated measures to charge ships for carbon emissions for shipping, but delegations differed on how the tax would be used and whether it would apply to all countries. The problem is compounded by the fact that many ships fly flags of convenience and true ownership often is difficult to trace.
Jo Espinoza-Ferry, the IMO's policy planning chief, says any financial measure would probably add less than 1 percent to transportation costs. He said on the sidelines of a climate conference in Germany in April that several market-based options were being considered, including a direct tax, an emissions trading scheme or a combination of incentives.
Max reported from Amsterdam.