LONDON — During a contentious meeting over proposed climate regulations last fall, a Saudi diplomat to the obscure but powerful International Maritime Organization switched on his microphone to make an angry complaint: One of his colleagues was revealing the proceedings on Twitter as they happened.
It was a breach of the secrecy at the heart of the I.M.O., a clubby United Nations agency on the banks of the Thames that regulates international shipping and is charged with reducing emissions in an industry that burns an oil so thick it might otherwise be turned into asphalt. Shipping produces as much carbon dioxide as all of America’s coal plants combined.
Internal documents, recordings and dozens of interviews reveal what has gone on for years behind closed doors: The organization has repeatedly delayed and watered down climate regulations, even as emissions from commercial shipping continue to rise, a trend that threatens to undermine the goals of the 2016 Paris climate accord.
One reason for the lack of progress is that the I.M.O. is a regulatory body that is run in concert with the industry it regulates. Shipbuilders, oil companies, miners, chemical manufacturers and others with huge financial stakes in commercial shipping are among the delegates appointed by many member nations. They sometimes even speak on behalf of governments, knowing that public records are sparse, and that even when the organization allows journalists into its meetings, it typically prohibits them from quoting people by name.
Homes are washing away. Much of the nation could become unlivable in the coming decade.
was almost denied a seat. International Registries, which represented the Marshall Islands on the I.M.O., initially refused to yield to the foreign minister, Mr. Woodroofe recalled.
United Nations climate meetings, countries are typically represented by senior politicians and delegations of government officials. At the maritime organization’s environmental committee, however, one in four delegates comes from industry, according to separate analyses by The New York Times and the nonprofit group Influence Map.
Representatives of the Brazilian mining company Vale, one of the industry’s heaviest carbon polluters and a major sea-based exporter, sit as government advisers. So does the French oil giant Total, along with many shipowner associations. These arrangements allow companies to influence policy and speak on behalf of governments.
Connections can be hard to spot. Luiz Gylvan Meira Filho sat on the Brazilian delegation in 2017 and 2018 as a University of Sao Paulo scientist. But he also worked at a Vale-funded research organization and, during his second year, was a paid Vale consultant. In an interview, he described his role as mutually beneficial: Brazilian officials relied on his expertise, and Vale covered his costs.
“Sometimes you cannot tell the difference. Is this actually the position of a nation or the position of the industry?” said David Paul, a Marshallese senator who attended an I.M.O. meeting in 2018.
Hundreds of other industry representatives are accredited observers and can speak at meetings. Their numbers far exceed those of the approved environmental groups. The agency rejected an accreditation request by the Environmental Defense Fund in 2018.
Industry officials and the maritime organization say such arrangements give a voice to the experts. “If you don’t involve the people who are actually going to have to deliver, then you’re going to get a poor outcome,” said Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping.
openly opposed strict emissions regulation as a hindrance to economic growth. And an informal bloc of countries and industry groups helped drag out the goal-setting process for three years.
Documents show that China, Brazil and India, in particular, threw up repeated roadblocks: In 2015, it was too soon to consider a strategy. In 2016, it was premature to discuss setting targets. In 2017, they lacked the data to discuss long-term goals.
a Cook Islands diplomat.
The I.M.O. almost never puts environmental policies to a vote, favoring instead an informal consensus-building. That effectively gives vocal opponents blocking power, and even some of the agency’s defenders acknowledge that it favors minimally acceptable steps over decisive action.
So, when delegates finally set goals in 2018, Mr. de Brum’s ambition had been whittled away.
The Marshall Islands suggested a target of zero emissions “by the second half of the century” — meaning by 2050. Industry representatives offered a slightly different goal: Decarbonization should occur “within” the second half of the century, a one-word difference that amounted to a 50-year extension.
Soon, though, the delegates agreed, without a vote, to eliminate zero-emissions targets entirely.
What remained were two key goals:
First, the industry would try to improve fuel efficiency by at least 40 percent. This was largely a mirage. The target was set so low that, by some calculations, it was reached nearly the moment it was announced.
Second, the agency aimed to cut emissions at least in half by 2050. But even this watered-down goal is proving unreachable. The agency’s own data say emissions may rise by 30 percent.
When delegates met last October — five years after Mr. de Brum’s speech — the organization had not taken any action. Proposals like speed limits had been debated and rejected.
What remained was what several delegates called the “refrigerator rating” — a score that, like those on American appliances, identified the clean and dirty ships.
European delegates insisted that, for the system to work, low-scoring ships must eventually be prohibited from sailing.
China and its allies wanted no such consequence.
So Sveinung Oftedal of Norway, the group’s chairman, told France and China to meet separately and compromise.
Delegates worked across time zones, meeting over teleconferences because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Shipping industry officials said they weighed in through the night.
The Marshallese were locked out.
“We’re always being told ‘We hear you,’” Mr. Ishoda said. “But when it comes to the details of the conversation, we’re told ‘We don’t need you to contribute.’”
Ultimately, France ceded to nearly all of China’s requests, records show. The dirtiest ships would not be grounded. Shipowners would file plans saying they intended to improve, would not be required to actually improve.
German delegates were so upset that they threatened to oppose the deal, likely triggering a cascade of defections, according to three people involved in the talks. But European Union officials rallied countries behind the compromise, arguing that Europe could not be seen as standing in the way of even limited progress.
“At I.M.O., that is as always the choice,” said Damien Chevallier, the French negotiator. “We have the choice to have nothing, or just to have a first step.”
All of this happened in secret. The I.M.O.’s summary of the meeting called it a “major step forward.” Natasha Brown, a spokeswoman, said it would empower customers and advocacy groups. “We know from consumer goods that the rating system works,” she said.
But the regulation includes another caveat: The I.M.O. will not publish the scores, letting shipping companies decide whether to say how dirty their ships are.
A Storm on the Horizon
Ms. Kabua, the Marshallese minister, is under no illusions that reclaiming the diplomatic seat will lead to a climate breakthrough.
But if it works, she said, it might inspire other countries with private registries to do the same. Countries could speak for themselves rather than through a corporate filter.
Regardless of the outcome, the political winds are shifting. The European Union is moving to include shipping in its emissions-trading system. The United States, after years of being minor players at the agency, is re-engaging under President Biden and recently suggested it may tackle shipping emissions itself.
Both would be huge blows to the I.M.O., which has long insisted that it alone regulate shipping.
Suddenly, industry officials say they are eager to consider things like fuel taxes or carbon.
“There’s much more of a sense of momentum and crisis,” said Mr. Platten, the industry representative. “You can argue about, ‘Are we late to it,’ and all the rest. But it is palpable.”
Behind closed doors, though, resistance remains. At a climate meeting last winter, recordings show that the mere suggestion that shipping should become sustainable sparked an angry response.
“Such statements show a lack of respect for the industry,” said Kostas G. Gkonis, the director of the trade group Intercargo.
And just last week, delegates met in secret to debate what should constitute a passing grade under the new rating system. Under pressure from China, Brazil and others, the delegates set the bar so low that emissions can continue to rise — at roughly the same pace as if there had been no regulation at all.
Delegates agreed to revisit the issue in five years.
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“The F-150 is generally driven by guys who have a certain image of driving around in a truck — and that image includes noise, gasoline, a muscle engine. We don’t know anything about consumer uptake of eclectic trucks. We don’t know if they’ll want to drive this.”
A study published this year found that about 20 percent of people who purchased electric passenger vehicles were dissatisfied with them — in part because they worried about the lack of electric vehicle charging stations — and returned to driving traditional vehicles.
But White House officials say the pickup Mr. Biden drove on Tuesday could help tip that calculation. The F-150 “has really been a high-performing work vehicle and leisure vehicle, and now you can get it without the expense of all of that gasoline,” Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, said in an interview.
So far, only Tesla has sold electric models in high volume, but Ford typically sells about 900,000 F-Series vehicles a year. Earlier this year, Ford began selling the Mustang Mach E, a battery-powered sport-utility vehicle styled to resemble the company’s famous sports car.
“We’re not just electrifying fringe vehicles,” the company’s chairman, William C. Ford Jr., said. “The Mustang and the F-150 are the heart of what Ford is, so this is a signal about how serious we are about electrification.”
Autoworkers have expressed concerns over the electric transition, which American automakers are increasingly embracing, because the production of an electric vehicle requires about one-third less human labor than a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.
But union leaders offered cautious support of the president’s cheerleading for the electric pickup.
“It is no secret that the U.S. auto industry is at a crossroads, as sales of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are poised to become more and more common on our roads and highways in the years ahead both at home and abroad,” said Rory L. Gamble, the president of the United Auto Workers. “Taxpayer dollars should be spent in support of U.S.-built vehicles, not imports. ”
And the industry is surging. Last year, Inland Empire, a region close to the Los-Angeles-Long Beach port where retailers and manufactures offload billions of dollars in goods, added 23 million square feet of new warehouse construction, an area the equivalent of nearly 500 football fields.
“Where we live, these warehouses are popping up like Starbucks,” said Ivette Torres of the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice, a local nonprofit organization that has campaigned for warehouses to address their role in air pollution.
Operators of warehouses larger than 100,000 square feet (roughly two football fields) are required to earn points to make up for emissions from the trucks that come and go from the warehouses. Operators can earn these points by acquiring or using zero-emissions trucks or yard vehicles, or investing in other methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, installing solar panels at the warehouses or having air filters installed in local homes, schools and hospitals. Or they could choose to pay a fee if not in compliance.
Many warehouses are far larger. One planned site involves 40 million square feet of industrial buildings, an area about the size of Central Park in New York.
Known as an “indirect source rule,” the effort is unusual because it largely targets emissions from the trucks that service warehouses, rather than the warehouses themselves. In the past, similar approaches have been made to address the heavy traffic drawn by sports stadiums or shopping malls.
According to estimates by the regulator, its plan will reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 15 percent and result in up to 300 fewer deaths, up to 5,800 fewer asthma attacks, and up to 20,000 fewer work loss days between 2022 and 2031. The district estimated that public health benefits from its plan could be as much as $2.7 billion, about three times the projected costs.
The region, which includes portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties and all of Orange County, has a population of 18 million people — more than most states.
Buying used could be a cheaper way to get an electric vehicle, though evaluate the car you are buying carefully, particularly the quality of the battery, because it will degrade over time. That said, a used electric vehicle could be a perfect choice for a second car for errands, commutes and other short trips.
Consider the alternatives.
As exciting as it may be to own an electric vehicle, it may not be for everyone. Many families and individuals can’t afford an E.V. that meets their needs — there are few electric vehicles with three rows and room for youth sports gear, for example, and they tend to be expensive. Others cannot easily charge at or near their homes. That’s why Mr. DeLorenzo and Mr. Fisher recommend plug-in hybrids.
“If you’re interested but not really sure you want to commit, these plug-in hybrids are kind of a gateway,” Mr. Fisher, of Consumer Reports, said.
For many people, a plug-in like a Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan or the RAV4 Prime S.U.V. could effectively serve as an all-electric vehicle, he said. Toyota claims the RAV4 Prime can run for 42 miles before switching to gasoline, while Chrysler says the Pacifica has 32 miles on a full charge. If used mostly for short commutes to work and trips around town, the cars could rarely use gas. Those two vehicles and other plug-in hybrids also qualify for federal tax credits.
“You can just plug it into your normal wall outlet and charge it overnight and you can get a taste of what that’s like, having an E.V., and then maybe your next vehicle will be a pure E.V.,” he said.
Of course, gas-powered cars have grown increasingly efficient, and choosing one wisely can help reduce emissions if you are upgrading from an older vehicle. Yet many people buy cars based on what they consider alluring and attractive. And if you are wowed by the features and design of an E.V., you might find it hard to settle for anything else, Mr. DeLorenzo said.
“It’s a different experience,” he said. “It’s not the same as owning a regular car, for sure. So there’s something to be said for that.”
OTTAWA — In a decision that marked an important victory for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate change agenda, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the federal government’s imposition of carbon taxes in provinces that oppose them was constitutional.
Citing Parliament’s power to legislate on matters related to “peace, order and good government,” the court said that fighting climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions was a matter of “national concern” protected under the Constitution.
“This matter is critical to our response to an existential threat to human life in Canada and around the world,” the court wrote in its 6-to-3 decision. “Climate change is real. It is caused by greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities and it poses a grave threat to humanity’s future.”
The concept of carbon pricing has been widely endorsed by economists and, according to the World Bank, some form of it has been carried out or is in development in 64 countries, either through direct taxes on fossil fuels or through cap-and-trade programs.
notably California. Money and tax credits to address climate change are expected to underpin much of President Biden’s coming spending proposals, which aides and documents suggest could cost as much as $4 trillion over the next decade.
But several people familiar with the forthcoming infrastructure package in the United States said that there are no plans currently to price carbon emissions. Instead, the president plans to greatly raise fuel efficiency standards for cars, forcing automakers toward electric vehicles through regulation, not legislation. Similarly, Mr. Biden plans to reimpose strict emissions regulations on electric power plants to move the sector away from coal.
Republicans in Congress remain firmly opposed to a carbon tax and have voted repeatedly and nearly unanimously over the years to bar the government from imposing one.
Parliament’s budget watchdog found that most households are paid more in rebates than they spend on carbon taxes. Households can boost that bonus by further cutting emissions by using more efficient or electric vehicles or improving their heating systems.
Jason Kenney, the premier of Alberta, who canceled his province’s program, told reporters that he was disappointed with the decision but declined to say if his province will come up with a carbon pricing system to replace the federally imposed one. “We’re going to consult with Albertans and talk to our allied provinces to determine the best way forward,” he said.
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law in part because the federal plan only kicks in if provinces do not set up their programs, thus maintaining the shared jurisdiction the two levels of government hold on environmental issues.
It also concluded that setting a single national minimum price for carbon is necessary for effectively reducing greenhouse gases, or GHGs, which makes federal involvement essential
“Addressing climate change requires collective national and international action,” the court wrote. “This is because the harmful effects of GHGs are, by their very nature, not confined by borders.”
Lisa Friedman contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.