Shipping – which transports about 90% of global trade – is, statistically, the least environmentally damaging mode of transport, when its productive value is taken into consideration. For example, the vast quantity of grain required to make the world’s daily bread could not be transported any other way than by ship. Moreover, set against land-based industry, shipping is, overall, a comparatively minor contributor to marine pollution from human activities.
IMO’s original mandate was principally concerned with maritime safety. However, as the custodian of the 1954 International Convention for the prevention of pollution of the sea by oil (OILPOL Convention), the Organization, soon after it began functioning in 1959, assumed responsibility for pollution issues and subsequently has, over many years, adopted a wide range of measures to prevent and control pollution caused by ships and to mitigate the effects of any damage that may occur as a result of maritime operations and accidents.
These measures have been shown to be successful in reducing ship-sourced pollution and illustrate the commitment of the Organization and the shipping industry towards protecting the environment. Of the 51 treaty instruments for the regulation of international shipping IMO has adopted so far, 21 are directly environment-related.
The work of the Marine Environment Division is, in the main, directed by the Marine Environment Protection Committee, the MEPC in short, which is IMO's senior technical body on marine pollution related matters. It is aided in its work by a number of IMO's Sub-Committees, in particular the Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR).
The original focus of its work was the prevention of marine pollution by oil, resulting in the adoption of the first ever comprehensive antipollution convention, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) in 1973. This has changed over the last few decades to include a much wider range of measures to prevent marine pollution, and the original MARPOL Convention was amended many times to also include requirements addressing pollution from chemicals, other harmful substances, garbage, sewage and, under an Annex VI adopted in 1997, air pollution and emissions from ships.
Other international instruments in the remit of the Division regulate oil pollution preparedness, response and co-operation (OPRC Convention and its 2000 OPRC-HNS Protocol), control of harmful anti-fouling systems on ships (AFS Convention), prevention of the potentially devastating effects of the spread of invasive harmful aquatic organisms carried by ships’ ballast water (BWM Convention), safe and environmentally sound recycling of ships (Hong Kong Convention), to name just a few.
IMO also carries out Secretariat functions in connection with the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, the London Convention as well as its 1996 Protocol. Its objective is to promote the effective control of all sources of marine pollution and to take all practicable steps to prevent pollution of the sea by dumping of wastes and other matter.
Many developing countries cannot yet give full and complete effect to these instruments, for various reasons. IMO has established an Integrated Technical Co-operation Programme (ITCP), with the sole purpose of assisting countries in building up their human and institutional capacities for uniform and effective compliance with the Organization’s regulatory framework. Assisting these countries in working towards sustainable socio-economic development and enhancement of marine environment protection will ultimately result in cleaner waters and coasts, increased tourism, greater access to protein through improved and uncontaminated fish catches and integrated coastal zone management.