The U.N. agency responsible for global shipping took its first halting steps toward greenhouse gas regulation Friday, despite the objections of the Trump White House.

Sixty-five countries, led by the European Union and Pacific islands, succeeded in shepherding a resolution through the International Maritime Organization calling on the shipping industry to shed at least half its emissions by 2050 compared with 2008 levels. The measure was approved during the IMO’s two-week meeting in London, where only members of a specific committee had a vote.

The resolution puts the shipping industry on a decarbonization trajectory for later in the century. It’s nonbinding, but a necessary step toward mandatory regulation in the future. The IMO will hold an October gathering to consider a timeline and action plan.

Greens heralded the move as a first step toward bringing the sector in line with the world’s quest for a safe climate.

“The agreement today is an opportunity to bend this curve to align with the Paris Agreement, but it needs to translate into urgent action—now,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of the World Wildlife Fund’s global climate and energy program.

The agreement, which also set the stage for a ban on heavy fuel oil that contributes to black carbon emissions in the Arctic, was opposed in the end by three countries: Saudi Arabia, Brazil and the United States.

Japan, which championed a weaker resolution backed by the shipping industry that would have capped emissions at 50 percent by 2060, joined with the majority.

The U.S. opposition surprised many because the world’s largest economy has generally been a low-key member of the U.N. shipping body across administrations. But State Department negotiator Andrew Rakestraw in the first week of talks came out strongly against the adoption of a resolution calling for any absolute emissions cuts, implementing a strategy left to him by former White House energy adviser George David Banks.

In his statement opposing the resolution late last week, Jeffrey Lantz—the Coast Guard official who led the talks for the United States in the second week—declared, “We do not support the establishment of an absolute reduction target at this time.

“In addition, we note that achieving significant emissions reductions, in the international shipping sector, would depend on technological innovation and further improvements in energy efficiency,” said Lantz, according to sources present at the talks, which are closed to reporters.

The United States also objected to language hinting at divisions between future responsibilities by developed and developing countries, though it’s not clear how that divide would play out in the shipping sector. Brazil and Saudi Arabia separately panned the resolution as too stringent, while some countries backed the resolution but registered concerns that it wouldn’t go far enough.

Europe and the Pacific islands originally proposed a 70 to 100 percent cut in shipping emissions by 2050, a target aimed at bringing the sector’s burgeoning emissions in line with the Paris Agreement’s goal of containing warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

While some advocates praised the resolution’s language on heavy fuel oil and black carbon, Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser at the Clinton White House, called it insufficient. “The IMO claims they’ll enact a ban on heavy fuel oil use by shipping next year, but they’ve left these promises unfulfilled before,” he said.

‘Existence over economic growth’

The resolution was a particular victory for the Marshall Islands, which worked with France to lobby for a more ambitious target. The island nation is one of the most shipping-dependent economies in the world, but also one of the most climate-vulnerable. The late Marshallese statesman Tony de Brum initiated the push for an IMO-Paris Agreement policy in 2015 during a meeting hosted in his country.

Marshallese President Hilda Heine said in a statement Friday that the resolution had made the Marshall Islands a little safer from catastrophic sea-level rise, a goal that a “landmark sectoral cap” on emissions and periodic updates would help achieve.

“As one of the world’s most vulnerable countries, and one of those most reliant on shipping, including as the second biggest flag state, our delegation fought hard for this outcome,” she said.

Tristan Smith, an energy and shipping expert with the UCL Energy Institute, noted that other vulnerable island nations, like Tuvalu and Kiribati, backed ambitious emission cuts, despite being in line to pay any extra costs throughout their economies.

“They very rationally took the view that you do have to prioritize existence over economic growth,” Smith said.

Shipping contributes only 2 to 3 percent of today’s global emissions, but its emissions are set to grow by between 50 and 250 percent if left unchecked. The goal set by this resolution would preclude new oceangoing vessels from depending on fossil fuels starting in the 2030s, according to an analysis by the UCL Energy Institute in Britain.

“The basic climate science that tells us that the zero net emissions needs to come very soon, 2050 to 2060, that basic climate science was the winner in this debate,” said Smith, “though many will say, and they’re right, that the agreement could be stronger.”

The IMO process differs from the international climate talks conducted under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in that a simple majority can forge an agreement—as was the case last week. It also differs in that the IMO can set mandatory regulations, while the U.N. climate process cannot.

Faig Abbasov of the European Federation for Transport and Environment said that short-term regulations could be in place in a few years under an optimistic scenario. The resolution could also open the door for the creation of a market-based mechanism—a carbon tax or other program—that would govern global shipping emissions. Such a system would likely require the negotiation and ratification of a new treaty, which would take a decade or longer. But some speculate that the current treaty governing maritime pollutants could support such a program.

As a member of the IMO, the United States would be obligated to impose IMO regulations on ships sailing under its flag, but there is no enforcement mechanism if it does not. Those regulations would be imposed on any ships coming to port in countries that impose IMO regulations.

“In this case, even if the U.S. doesn’t like IMO, even if Trump gets re-elected and decides to keep on boycotting everything on climate and not enforce IMO regulation on U.S. ships, ships will still have to be compliant if they want to sail elsewhere,” said Abbasov.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.