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To reach net zero, we must decarbonise shipping. Two major problems stand in our way

To reach net zero, we must decarbonise shipping. Two major problems stand in our way

Shipping, which transports 90% of the world’s trade, contributes nearly 3% of global emissions – a little more than the carbon footprint of Germany. This share could increase if it is not controlled. increase to 17% by 2050 as the world’s GDP keeps growing.

The international climate summit in Glasgow saw 14 nations sign a statement urging shipping emissions to be reduced. a declarationLast week, to reduce shipping emissions to net zero by 2050

On SaturdayPrior to the key meeting, senior government officials and shipping industry heavyweights met to discuss details of this lofty promise. transportation talksCOP26. Important differencesIt was unclear whether regulatory or market rules would be more effective in pushing the industry towards net zero.

It is notoriously difficult to decarbonize shipping and aviation. They require huge amounts of fuel for international travel. The questions of who is responsible for emissions make reaching agreements a difficult and daunting task.

Steady growth

Shipping’s total emissionsFor the first time since 2008’s global financial crisis, they are expected to rise in the coming year.

According to a report, 40% of carbon dioxide emissions from 2050 will come from shipping and aviation if they are not regulated. study published by the European Parliament.

With so much at stake, we’re finally starting to see change, with businesses (and their customers) placing more emphasis on shipping’s contribution to climate change. This October, nine big companies – including Amazon, Ikea, and Unilever – pledged to move their cargo only on ships using zero-carbon fuel by 2040.

What’s more, three of the world’s largest container shipping lines – Maersk, CMA CGM, and MSC – are actively pursuing the use of alternative fuels and aim to be net-zero compliant by 2050 or before.

If global shipping continues to grow and other sectors are decarbonising, it will contribute 17% of the world’s emissions.
Dominik Luckmann/Unsplash. CC BY

Technology shortage

The majority of ship engines use low-grade, high-carbon-heavy fuel oils, which can cause significant air pollution. Some shipowners are looking to convert existing ships to run on LNG or build new ships.

This presents a 25% reduction in CO₂ emissions comparedLNG is still an option to the current low-grade fuel. releases methane into the atmosphere – a heat-trapping gas roughly 30 times more potent than CO₂.

This is a sign of a major problem that is preventing decarbonisation of shipping: there are no zero-carbon technologies that can scale up to large ocean-going vessels.




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Commercially viable technologiesThat create alternative, zero-emissions fuels such as hydrogen and ammoniaShip engine manufacturers are still developing them.

The fuel storage requirements onboard ships and the need to replenish these fuels in port after long journeys are a significant problem. Only short trips, such as ferries and coastal trips, can be powered by battery power from renewable sources.

Nuclear propulsion has also been considered, but there are associated risks and it doesn’t have the support of the general public.

The IMO’s target to halve emissions by 2050 is not in line with Paris Agreement.
Chuttersnap/Unsplash. CC BY

Global disunity

Shipping was in hot water in October United Nations Secretary General Antonio de GuterresHe accused the industry of not doing enough in order to stop global warming. Is he right?

One of the difficulties in cutting emissions in shipping is that it’s hard to decide which country the emissions should be assigned to.

Should it be based on where the ship’s fuel is sold, where a ship is registered, or the origins or destinations of the ship’s cargo? Each option would result in radically different emissions responsibilities, and associated costs for each country.




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The International Maritime OrganizationThe UN body (IMO) addresses the issue of emissions from ships involved in international trade. It’s currently coordinating measures to curb maritime emissions among its more than 170 member states. Each state has its own. competing interests.

The IMO set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2050, compared to 2008 levels in April 2018. This was met with harsh criticism. environmental organisationsThey call it weak and unambitious.

This target is well below the net-zero target by 2050, which was declared by countries last week at COP26. The declaration was led Denmark and includes the US. Notably, it wasn’t signed by countries with large maritime shipping industries, such as Japan or Greece.

After collecting more data, the IMO agreed to revisit their target for 2023. Given growing public interest in climate change and large companies demanding zero emissions in shipping their goods, I believe it’s likely the IMO will bolster its target, and start working towards net-zero emissions by 2050.

Cars that are exported are loaded onto a cargo ship at a port near Yokohama in Japan.
AP Photo/Koji Sasahara

So what should you do now?

At Saturday’s conference, it became clearThe majority of shipowners present supported the use of the market to solve the problem of emissions. They also suggested using carbon prices.

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This echos the calls for trade groups, representing more than 90% of the world’s merchant fleet. They asked the IMO for a carbon tax to be implemented in the industry to encourage shipowners and other fuel technology investors.

On the contrary, the representative for Japanese shipowners argued in favor of letting politicians set the rules, stating that the shipping sector would follow them.

Shipowners who have recently made investments in LNG-powered vessels were, evidently, pleased advocating its useAccording to them, there are no zero-carbon alternative fuels currently available and they are still a long way away.




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Global unity is essential before we can make any progress in decarbonizing shipping. It is crucial that more member countries sign on to the net zero by 2020 declaration.

The IMO must establish international standards around who’s responsible for emissions. To speed up the process, countries with large shipping fleets like Japan and Greece must join. It takes years to develop IMO resolutions and even longer for its member countries to ratify them.

A well-funded research and development programThe industry has agreed that it will pay for this within a global regulatory framework. This must be implemented immediately under the supervision and control of the IMO.

The heightened interest we’re seeing across the supply chains and at COP26 is an important opportunity for the shipping industry to be on the front foot, and reduce their emissions sooner rather than later.


COP26: the world's biggest climate talks

This story is part of The Conversation’s coverage of COP26, the Glasgow climate conference, by experts from around the world.

The Conversation is here to help you understand the climate news and stories. Read more.


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