New Zealand lags behind in international shipping law

Research from Victoria University of Wellington's Faculty of Law reveals New Zealand is lagging behind when it comes to international laws around ship emissions and air pollution.

Dr Bevan Marten, a senior lecturer who specialises in maritime law, says that New Zealand is one of only four countries in the OECD that have not signed up to Annex VI of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).

“This international standard has been around for years. The fact that New Zealand hasn’t signed up to it makes us a real outlier—it’s quite embarrassing.

“Any country we want to compare ourselves to—from Australia to Europe, as well as lots of Pacific Islands—has ratified it.”

Annex VI was agreed to in 1997, and took effect internationally in 2005. It deals primarily with ships’ fuel quality and engine efficiency. It is also being used by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as the vehicle for discussions around greenhouse gas emissions from shipping.

In addition to the reputational risk of not being seen to address the global challenge of air pollution, Dr Marten believes that New Zealand risks not having a credible voice at IMO when the next steps for shipping’s response to greenhouse gases are discussed.

“We are saying that climate change is important, but any other country could turn around and ask why we haven’t signed up to this agreement.”

Some of the proposals already on the table at IMO for addressing the reduction in shipping-related emissions would have serious economic impact on New Zealand, as they would involve ships that travel longer distances having to pay higher levies.

“New Zealand’s geographic isolation makes us vulnerable and with our international trading interests we need the government to take a strong and effective line when these issues are raised. Without having ratified Annex VI, New Zealand lacks a credible voice in these discussions.

“To date our government policy has been that we’re just a small country with no international shipping fleet of our own so it doesn’t really matter, but this is disingenuous and irresponsible.”

He says there are also practical health benefits to signing the agreement. Air quality monitoring in Auckland, Tauranga and Wellington suggests that shipping is a key source of sulphur dioxide emissions in these cities. The burning of bunker fuel oil is also a significant source of nitrogen oxides and fine particulates, which are known to be carcinogenic.

“If you’re pushing your stroller along Auckland waterfront during a busy day at the port, you and your child could be breathing in some pretty toxic stuff—these are nasty pollutants.

“Ratifying Annex VI would demonstrate that the government takes these issues seriously.”

Dr Marten is calling for the ratification of Annex VI to be made a priority on the Ministry of Transport’s work programme.

“The move would have practical benefits—both in addressing the issue of clean air that is dear to New Zealanders’ hearts, and in giving New Zealand a stronger voice at the international level as the issue of air pollution becomes increasingly important at IMO.”