Marshall Islands may stop registering oil rigs in future, says foreign ministe

The Marshall Islands, the world’s third largest shipping registry, may stop registering oil rigs because of climate change, according to the Pacific nation’s foreign minister Tony de Brum.

The minister has advocated on the international stage for the survival of his islands, which are already suffering the effects of global warming. But he admitted that the 183 drill ships and platforms that reportedly sail under the Marshallese ensign were an uncomfortable reality as one of the tiny nation’s major sources of income.

“We are aware of oil companies financing platforms that are registered by our ship’s registry. We were very rudely awakened to this fact by the Deepwater Horizon issue in the Gulf [of Mexico] and in recent times by Greenpeace trying to mount our Marshallese registered platform,” he said.

In April, six activists climbed aboard a Shell operated rig bound for the Arctic to recommence the oil giant’s drilling programme in the far north. Greenpeace have called on the Marshall Islands to cease registering the vehicles of extraction.

De Brum said that his government may consider rejecting oil rig registrations, but the act would be useless in isolation and would only damage a business worth US$5m each year, 2.5% of the country’s GDP.

“That may very well be a political decision made by our cabinet, that we will no longer register oil rigs. If that’s the case we want to make sure that they don’t just go register elsewhere and do the same thing. This exercise should have some positive result and the best way to do that is get everybody involved,” said De Brum.

“While we are in agreement that there must be divestment, we have to take into account the dependence of the country on the amount we earn from our ship registry. And the fact that, if we drop a platform, it merely goes on to Panama or Nigeria and does the same thing.”

On Monday, the US government decided to allow Shell’s Marshallese-registered oil rig to proceed with drilling in Arctic waters. De Brum said the decision was inconsistent with president Barack Obama’s proactive rhetoric on climate change.

“It’s not easy when the United States is our main development partner and our closest ally and they are talking about keeping it [fossil fuels] in the ground and issuing permits for people to go dig it up,” he said.

De Brum was in London on Wednesday to lobby the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to set carbon emissions targets for the shipping industry. He said an international agreement within the sector was the only way to control a massive source of greenhouse gases that remains exempt from mainstream climate talks and to coordinate flag states to block the registration of the most polluting vessels.

Shipping causes about 3% of annual global emissions, roughly the same as aviation. Yet both sectors operate beyond the control or ambition of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the body that oversees international climate negotiations. The IMO predicts the sector’s emissions could grow by between 50% and 250% by 2050 . De Brum said this was a major threat to the world’s climate targets.

“People have criticised us for being a small country with a big mouth when it comes to climate change, but we are also the third-largest ship registry in the world, so we do have a mandate,” said De Brum, whose country looks set to become the second biggest registry when it overtakes Liberia in 2016.

One in 10 vessels worldwide sail underneath the Marshallese flag. People used to say that the sun never set on the British empire, said de Brum, “but now we say the sun never sets on the Marshall Islands shipping registry.”

De Brum’s call was backed by the EU on Wednesday, who have also argued for targets to be put in place for shipping emissions. But a source within the IMO told the Guardian that it was unlikely the organisation would act at all before the Paris climate conference in December – which will set the tone for global emissions reductions.

The IMO has been stalled over introducing a global measuring system for shipping emissions, so a target is likely to prove difficult. The IMO is dominated by industry – De Brum is the first minister of a state member to address the IMO’s environment committee – and each member commands one vote, meaning the size of the registry makes little difference in adopting new programmes.

Looking to the UNFCCC meeting in Paris, De Brum said the most important “outcome of Paris for us is confidence that we will exist ... And existence for us right now is less than 2C [of global warming]. Everybody’s now beginning to talk about 3.5C or 4C, anything over 2C is finished for us. And it’s not finished at the turn of the century, its finished now. Because we are already displacing people due to climate change in the Marshalls, in Kiribati, in Tuvalu.”

These atoll nations are exceptionally vulnerable to climate change. Their highest points are only a few metre above sea level, and inundations and large storms are becoming an increasing threat to their survival as viable, liveable countries.

“Our development partners talk about installing warning systems for tidal waves and big storms. So the siren goes off and then what do you do? You grab your rosary and your surfboard. That’s what you do. Where are you going to run?,” he  asked.

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