If the world of shipping is hidden to most of us, what goes on in IMO negotiations is even more opaque.
The shipping industry is about to make decisions that could have a profound impact on the global environment. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is meeting in London over the next two weeks and is set to draw up a strategy for cutting carbon pollution over the coming decades.
But battle lines are drawn between those keen to see an agreement in line with the Paris climate deal and those who would prefer to carry on with business as usual.
The scale of the shipping industry is vast. Around 90 percent of global trade - from clothes and food to building materials and fossil fuels - is carried by sea in a merchant fleet of around 50,000 vessels. The largest of these ships are some 400 metres long - to put this in context, the Eiffel tower is 300 metres tall.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, it has a significant carbon footprint. If the shipping industry were a country, it would be sixth in the list of carbon polluters, between Germany and Japan.
But because the Paris climate agreement is based on nationally determined contributions from member countries, as yet it has no specific obligations to cut shipping carbon. If these emissions continued to grow, it could be 17 percent - almost a fifth - of the world’s total emissions by 2050.
But shipping draws very little attention, with awareness low among both environmentalists and the general public. The exception is, of course, those who live in or near port cities.
The cheap staple fuel of ocean-going ships is the sludgy dregs of the refining process. When burned, it emits not just climate-damaging CO2, but sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.
In the UK’s major port cities such as Southampton, Grimsby and Liverpool, air pollution from shipping is a significant cause of concern for the health of local populations.
As climate protesters gathered outside the IMO building at the beginning of the negotiations in London, they were joined by East London residents concerned that plans to build a cruise ship terminal in Greenwich would further add to the burden on London’s already toxic air.
In Europe alone, air pollution from shipping is estimated to lead to around 50,000 premature deaths every year, with the congested ports of China and elsewhere in Asia taking an even heavier toll.
If the world of shipping is hidden to most of us, what goes on in IMO negotiations is even more opaque. A report by Transparency International, published this week, reinforces long-standing concerns that the shipping industry has undue influence over this UN body.
Around three-quarters of merchant ships are registered under ‘flags of convenience’. More than half of the world’s fleet is registered in just five states: Liberia, Malta, Panama, the Marshall Islands and the Bahamas.
These offer low or zero tax rates, limited environment and social regulation and high levels of financial secrecy. The registered owner of almost all open registry ships is a shell company set up for the sole purpose of owning that one ship.
Although IMO decisions are one member one vote among the 173 member nations, in practice they are taken by consensus, and those with greater tonnage registered have an advantage since they could block implementation by failing to ratify policies.
Government delegations should in theory be accountable to their citizens, but with employees of corporations, including shipping companies, appointed to delegations, the private sector can influence or indeed dominate delegations’ policy. These delegates are not subject to conflict of interest rules or to a code of conduct.
Interest groups can also access discussions by attending as ‘consultative members’. Industry bodies outnumber civil society and labour organisations among consultative members, and NGOs who are consultative members are hampered in their work by the requirements imposed: they can face expulsion if they criticise the agency.
Journalists can also be barred from the talks if they report on country views as expressed in open plenary without express permission.
So where does this leave the chances of getting a good deal for the climate from the IMO’s current negotiations?
The good news is that there are ways in which emissions can be cut significantly, using current technology. Even the simple measure of reducing ship speed by 10 percent would lead to a 19 percent reduction in the energy needed for that voyage.
In fact, the International Transport Forum of the OECD has argued that deployment of all currently known technologies could enable maritime shipping to - almost - completely decarbonise by 2035.
This includes technological measures such as hull design improvements; wind technology and electric propulsion; and alternative fuels such as biofuels, methanol, ammonia and hydrogen.
The last, of course comes with a health warning of caution required - the EU’s reckless push for greater biofuel use in vehicles was an environmental disaster. But the overall picture is much more positive than for aviation, where promised techno-fixes have so far been largely mythical.
The Marshall Islands have proposed that the IMO should aim for zero emissions by 2035. A group of EU, Pacific countries and NGOs are arguing for at least 70 percent (and aiming for 100 percent) by 2050.
However, a group of nations led by Brazil, and including Saudi Arabia, India and Argentina, is resisting any cap on total CO2 emissions from shipping. This leaves the door open to a weaker deal, incompatible with the Paris climate agreement.
Japan, however, is proposing just a 50 percent cut by 2060. The International Chamber of Shipping, which represents 80 percent of the world’s merchant fleet, suggests reducing emissions by 50 percent per tonne-km by 2050 with an overall cap of maintaining emissions below 2008 levels.
Much like individual countries looking to cut their emissions, the shipping industry faces both immediate costs and potential advantages from taking advantage of new, cleaner technologies.
But one thing is clear - they cannot expect to get a free ride. The Paris agreement was drawn up in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence about the need for radical action on climate, and since 2015 the urgency has only increased.
Claire James is campaigns coordinator for the Campaign against Climate Change.