03/25/2011 05:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Can the Maritime Industry Rescue the World's Most Vulnerable?

The Japanese nuclear crisis has prompted heated debate in some quarters about the role of nuclear power in a carbon-constrained world. Several scenarios -- Greenpeace (PDF), WWF (PDF), and the European Renewable Energy Council (PDF) -- demonstrate that nuclear is a relatively small sideshow in the great electrical power race. Renewables can be scaled to meet the needs of our civilization within a 20-40 year time frame.

As Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute pointed out last year, "We are witnessing an embrace of renewable energy on a scale we've never seen for fossil fuels or nuclear power. And not only in industrial countries." For many large emerging economies, the trend has been driven by economic considerations. It simply makes good sense. And for many developed countries obligations under the Kyoto Protocol have served as a powerful incentive for increasing efficiency and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. What at first was perceived as hardship for these nations later turned out to be a blessing for their bottom lines.

But two increasingly important sources of CO2 emissions are exempt from Kyoto and are on the rise partly as a result --shipping and aviation. This hardly seems fair. While everyone else is doing their part, these two industries have managed to just carry on with business as usual.

2011-03-25-maritimesydney.jpgNational Maritime Museum, Sydney, Australia

This inequitable form of "business as usual" is nowhere felt more strongly than in the developing world. Those who have done the least to contribute to climate change suffer the most from its impacts. According to the 2010 Climate Vulnerability Monitor approximately 350,000 people die each year from climate change, 80% of whom are children living in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa.

To address this inequality a global fund was created at the UN climate conference in Cancun last December to help the most vulnerable communities cope with climate change. This was a great victory in itself, but the fund still remains empty.

The good folks at Oxfam (along with many other groups) have come up with a win-win idea to level the playing field, while at the same time addressing one of the greatest injustices of all time. Here's what Oxfam says needs to happen next:

The International Maritime Organisation (the IMO is the UN body that regulates international shipping) is meeting in London starting on Monday 28 March to look at proposals to reduce emissions from shipping. Any agreement to reduce shipping emissions (estimated in 2007 to account for 2.7 per cent of world greenhouse gas emissions) would be a big step forward. But some of the options being considered - such as a levy on shipping fuel - would not only encourage emissions reductions, they would also help fill the coffers of the Climate Fund.

Governments in the IMO need to keep these options on the table. And later this year the G20 will take into consideration such a funding mechanism, raising the prospect of a real breakthrough agreement to be adopted at the next global climate conference (COP17) in South Africa this coming December.

A small levy on shipping fuel would have a negligible impact on consumers in rich countries, yet could generate significant money for the climate fund. A higher levy would generate even more money, and would have the added benefit of helping reduce emissions without unduly burdening consumers. Any potential impact on developing countries with large shipping industries could be offset through other means, so this is not an argument against the proposal.

Governments should be looking at similar options for the aviation sector. Taken together, it is estimated that such schemes to reduce emissions from international transport could generate at least US$12 billion a year, which would help fill the Climate Fund without raising taxes in developed countries or diverting money from aid budgets.

Next week's IMO meeting presents an opportunity to establish a real and tangible means to help those most vulnerable to climate change. Please share your thoughts about this plan by commenting below, or better yet, tell the IMO directly. And please tweet about this initiative using the hashtag #FillTheFund.