Virtual meetings offer silver lining to Covid cloud

The pandemic has forced the International Maritime Organization to change its processes, but this has bought vital time in the race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Virtual meetings offer silver lining to Covid cloud
Video calls have allowed the IMO to hold virtual meetings and continue discussing important industry issues

Anyone who has been engaged with the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) process to develop new maritime regulations knows that it is a protracted exercise. For some, this is a source of great frustration. However, I have always maintained that, while it is easy to point to flaws in regulations and ask what regulators were thinking, it is actually very difficult to develop robust, universally applicable, fair and feasible requirements that also fit in with all the other more or less functional existing requirements. This process must be allowed to take time, or we could end up with unworkable outcomes. 

On the other hand, much of the time spent at IMO meetings can be relatively unproductive. Three disagreeing member states might spend hours developing a compromise over some minute detail, while the other 300 people in the room are left idle. Furthermore, issues are dealt with somewhat sequentially. For many delegates, this means that there is often a good few days’ wait before their own key issues are raised. Sometimes your most pressing matter doesn’t make it to the top of the chair’s pile and is summarily deferred to the next session six or 12 months later.   

Enter into this mix a paralysing virus. The IMO was admirably quick to postpone upcoming meetings, and eventually launched its own format for virtual meetings – at first, they were of a more informal nature, but later the organisation was able to take formal decisions. Many other United Nations institutions have still not been able to agree on holding virtual meetings at all and have not been in session for a year. 

In what could have been a perfect storm, Covid-19 hit just as the IMO embarked on its arguably most ambitious regulatory exercise ever – mandatory greenhouse gas requirements for new and existing ships which were to be finalised by June 2021 before entering into force in 2023. With an impossibly short schedule to get these very comprehensive, complex and, for the industry, extremely disconcerting mandatory requirements in place, my initial thought last spring was that Covid-19 would derail the entire process and we would fall back to square one at best. 

In fact, it has been quite the contrary. While the old adage that “most work at the IMO is done during coffee breaks” is indeed correct, it can now be complemented with the insight that allowing member states, industry organisations, non-governmental organisations and the IMO Secretariat to work virtually in organic, ad hoc, non-scheduled groupings has been surprisingly effective.   

From December 2020 to February 2021, we engaged in a hugely time-constrained IMO Correspondence Group trying to figure out which of all the balls we have in the air we should keep juggling with, and which ones should be dropped for being unworkable in our maritime sector. This debate, and the consequent submissions, would be very challenging to conclude on schedule within the conventional IMO setting. It has taken a large effort by many, an excruciating effort by a few, and we have yet to see this come to fruition – but in the virtual arena, I think we will actually succeed. 

It will be very interesting to see how we arrange ourselves post-Covid-19. I, for one, miss the interaction with all colleagues at the IMO, but my per hour output has skyrocketed since I no longer have to spend all those hours getting to and from London, and even more hours waiting for our issues to be raised. 

Johan Roos is regulatory affairs director at Interferry 

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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By Johan Roos
23 April 2021

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