The shipping industry is responsible for a whopping portion of global greenhouse gas emissions, pumping as much carbon dioxide into the air as all the cars in America put together. In fact, as environmental group Oceana points out, ships emit more carbon dioxide worldwide than most individual countries emit from all sources. But ships have been getting a free ride as emissions have remained unregulated.

Oceana and other environmental organizations had hoped to see that change with an initiative that would have raised the cost of ships’ fuel and used the money to help poor countries tackle climate change, but those plans have stalled as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) delayed making the decision.

IMO, the United Nations’ specialized agency responsible for improving maritime safety and preventing pollution from ships, has been drawing up recommendations for design standards that would make the ships more efficient, but were unable to come to an agreement about imposing a levy on fuel used by ships.

As groups like Oceana and Friends of the Earth petition the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions from ships in America, the state of California is already a few steps ahead.

Since July 1, 2009, all oceangoing vessels have been required to switch to progressively cleaner fuels. California, the National Resources Defense Council and the Coalition for Clean Air cite concern about human health problems in addition to environmental concerns as the driving force behind the legislation, stating that air pollution produced by oceangoing vessels exposes 80 percent of Californians to significant cancer risk.

Peter Lockley, head of transport policy at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), expressed his frustration over the lack of progress on international standards.

"The global shipping industry emits a billion tons of CO2 [per year], and that number is on course to double or even triple by 2050. So far, there is not a single policy in place in the world to limit those emissions,” he told BBC News.

"They have made some progress on technical measures but there is still going to be nothing that is compulsory for shipping owners.”