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Opinion

Japan must use Mauritius oil spill to wean ships off fossil fuels

Japan owns ships worth a collective $92 billion and hosts over 1,000 shipyards

| Japan
A cleanup crew works at the site of an oil spill at Riviere des Creoles, Mauritius, on Aug. 8: as long as ships are powered by oil, there will be spills.   © Virtual Tour of Mauritius/Reuters

Madeline Rose is the climate campaign director at Pacific Environment which has consultative status at the United Nations' International Maritime Organization.

Japan's Wakashio oil spill in Mauritius was an entirely avoidable tragedy.

On July 25, the bulk carrier vessel, owned by Nagashiki Shipping and chartered by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, grounded off the coast of the small island nation of Mauritius. Fuel oil from the ship started to leak on August 6 and is now destroying one of the most beautiful places on Earth, along with the livelihoods of the people who live there. The spill has put the biodiversity within Mauritius lagoons at risk, including the mangrove forests, coral reefs and many unique and endangered species.

Kiyoaki Nagashiki, CEO of Nagashiki Shipping and Junichiro Ikeda, CEO of Mitsui O.S.K. Lines have publicly apologized for the environmental disaster. But apologies will not take back the damage done to the people and ecosystems of Mauritius. As long as ships are powered by oil, there will be spills.

To make right on this tragedy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should accelerate the drive to get all Japanese owned ships off fossil fuels entirely and lead the international community in shipping's clean energy transition.

Impossible? Not at all. Most of Japan's largest shipping lines are already members of the Getting to Zero coalition, a global alliance of 110 maritime companies working to get zero-emission, non-fossil fuel, cargo ships into commercial operation by 2030. Mitsui O.S.K. Lines is one of them.

Under the leadership of Kazuyoshi Akaba, Japan's Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is aiming to launch a zero-emission ship even earlier, by 2028. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, or MLIT, is exploring several viable clean energy options, including "green" hydrogen produced with renewable energy -- hydrogen produced from fossil fuels has no benefit for the climate.

Last month, Japan's container shipping line Nippon Yusen, also known as NYK Line, joined the Hydrogen Council a global CEO-led coalition. In February, Japanese automaker Toyota Motor delivered a fuel cell system to the Energy Observer -- the first boat to sail around the world using hydrogen generated on board from solar and wind power. The University of Tokyo is leading a project on automated wind-assisted propulsion on cargo ships. And other Japan-based maritime companies are developing solar and wind propulsion, and hydrogen on cargo ships.

The Energy Observer, pictured in April 2019, is the first boat to sail around the world using hydrogen generated on board from solar and wind power.   © Reuters

What's holding back all this private sector innovation from widespread commercialization is the lack of an ambitious, clear, comprehensive zero-emission shipping regulatory framework from the Japanese government.

What Japan does in this space matters. Japan is the second-largest ship owner and shipbuilder in the world. The country owns ships worth a collective $92 billion and hosts over 1,000 shipyards. Japan is also on the cutting edge of nearly every technology needed to create zero-carbon, zero-emission ships of the future. Prime Minister Abe can exert significant influence over the giant global shipping industry.

Four decisive policy changes need to happen. First, Prime Minister Abe should announce that in response to the tragic Mauritius oil spill, Japan will switch all state-owned vessels to the cleanest fossil fuel available, marine gas oil, and ask Japanese shipping lines to do the same. Second, the Prime Minister should mandate MLIT to accelerate its timeline for its Zero Emission Ship project to 2025, and unleash new policy incentives and funding streams to achieve this.

Third, the Prime Minister should put in place regulations requiring that all vessels docking at Japan's ports are zero-emission by 2035. A zero-emission port policy is not just the right thing to do in response to Mauritius but will improve air quality for the people of Japan, and position Japanese ports and industry to win the transition to a clean shipping future.

Fourth, Prime Minister Abe should fundamentally improve Japan's priorities and posture at the International Maritime Organization, or IMO, the United Nations Agency which sets international shipping regulation.

For years, Japan's delegation to the IMO has slowed climate progress and lobbied for purposefully weak environmental regulation. Instead of backing regulations that can spur the research and development of zero-emission vessels, Japan is currently pushing for a controversial policy known as Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index, or EEXI, that will allow shipping emissions to keep rising for at least another decade, in violation of Japan's own commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement.

Prime Minister Abe should personally engage to pull EEXI from further consideration now, before a crucial decision-making meeting this November.

Instead, Japan should move in line with the majority of countries by supporting ambitious operational efficiency measures that can reduce shipping emissions in real terms over the next decade, in line with the Paris Climate Agreement's safe global temperature goals. Only strong, science-based CO2 policies like this can create a serious investment case for zero-carbon fuels in shipping.

Action by Japan now, in the remainder of 2020, can alter the landscape for shipping decarbonization forever.

While the damage to Mauritius cannot be undone, future catastrophes like this can be prevented. Prime Minister Abe has the opportunity to emerge from this crisis a moral and industry leader for the 21st-century clean energy transition. He must not waste this chance.

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