How is the global shipping sector planning to decarbonize? 

World leaders gathered for the United Nations climate change conference to set new commitments for positive change and reiterate everyone’s unquestionable need to act now. 

The conference is known as the COP26; a global United Nations summit about climate change and how countries are going to tackle it.  Patricia Espinosa, the Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change said “Clearly, we are in a climate emergency” as the world is moving towards a 2.7 degree Celsius rise in temperature.  Which will have major implications for the environment.



“Humanity has long since run down the clock on climate change. It's one minute to midnight on that Doomsday clock and we need to act now”.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Parties attending the conference included the G20. This is twenty of the world’s largest economies, responsible for around 80% of world trade and associated Greenhouse Gas/GHG carbon dioxide emissions.  This gas is the main cause of climate change leading to warmer temperatures and environmental disasters such as floods, heatwaves and storms and is produced by burning fossil fuels. 

Whilst sea freight accounts for only 3% of total global CO2e, it is still something to be tackled. Approx. 70,000 ships generating around 300 million tons fuel every year. Some predictions set for 2050 show the global logistics sector as one of the top three contributors to worldwide GHG emissions.



So how do we decarbonise world trade?
The path to net zero for ocean shipping, which accounts for 80% of the transport of world trade, is on an arduous path. We’re talking about transforming one of the world’s largest industries.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) imposed mandatory measures to reduce air pollution from the sulphur dioxide emitted during international shipping, under its pollution prevention treaty (MARPOL) back in 2018. This made ocean vessel owners sit up and make changes in the form of using better fuels such as LNG (Liquid natural gas) or converting existing engines to include ‘scrubbers’, which clean the exhaust gases before being released in sea waters, or in slush waters onboard ships. 

The next stage in the IMO’s road map to 50% reduction in GHGe starts in 2023.  In perspective, this goal is going to require each ship in operation to reduce CO2 emissions per container, by an estimated 70-80%, compared to 2008.

The next step is calling for cargo ship owners to continuously invest in marine technologies to improve efficiency and identify new sources of low GHG fuels. We’re seeing plans for ships to run on the power of electricity, hydrogen fuel, hydro-powered and even solar panelled ships. This requires huge investment into new technology and although it is happening, how close we are to seeing this operational is a bit of an unknown.

Google the Yara Birkeland. It is a battery powered container ship made by Norwegian company Yara, which requires no crew to operate it. It is set to make its maiden voyage by the end of the year.

We’re also seeing alternative fuels like Methanol as a sustainable way to power vessels. Research from company Alfa Laval, says CO2e can be cut by 95% using Methanol and when produced from renewable sources, it can achieve carbon neutrality.

In an article about decarbonisation, MSC said they have been working on moving from fossil-based LNG to bio-LNG or synthetic variants. But the road is long. There’s nearly 100,000 vessels in operation and they all need to decarbonise.

The Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping is working to gather the ways in which decarbonizing can be achieved and chart a course for stakeholders to achieve it. In a recent report, they say a big challenge right now is the cost of greener fuel.  The gap between them and what’s used now being quite big, and when you think about the fact that fuel is around 35% of a vessel owners outlay annually, it’s significant. 

The decarbonization of the shipping industry is not a matter of if it will happen, but how it will happen, and how costly it will be.

“This is the challenge of our collective lifetimes, an existential threat to human existence as we know it and every day we delay the cost of inaction increases.”
US President Joe Biden


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