The task of curbing shipping emissions is like turning around the proverbial ocean liner. With massive amounts of fuel involved, the transition to a more sustainable oceangoing transportation scenario will be slow and cumbersome. Nevertheless, the job has to be tackled, and a group of leading shippers is working towards a collaborative solution.
The global shipping industry has been identified as a leading contributor to global warming. In 2019 the United Nations warned that the current state of affairs would lead to “an environmental disaster,” and advised that the industry requires a “propulsion revolution” to decarbonize.
The industry has already undergone at least one major technology revolution in modern history, when cargo vessels transitioned from wind-powered sails to fossil-powered engines. The next revolution will need to be even more wide-ranging and intensive.
To support the U.N. goal, 80 stakeholders in the global shipping industry formed the Getting to Zero Coalition in 2019, partnering with the Global Maritime Forum and Friends of Ocean Action, along with the backing of the World Economic Forum and the World Resources Institute.
GZC has a mission to establish an industrywide roadmap for cutting shipping emissions by at least 50 percent by 2050. As of this writing there are 140 members and a roadmap has taken shape.
Last November, GZC committed to five action steps outlined in a report prepared by the Energy Transitions Commission.
In terms of accelerating climate action, the good news is that technology to reduce shipping emissions is already in hand. However, the report makes it clear that ship builders will not commit to new fuels and technologies without the full backing of all stakeholders.
New technologies exist, but they are untested at scale on deep-ocean vessels. The supply chain has yet to materialize at scale as well. The report envisions a “first wave” of commercial-scale, deep sea pilot vessels supported by cost-reducing and de-risking strategies. That will require the backing of government policy makers and other stakeholders, including those required to create new value chains.
The report outlines five collaborative steps for overcoming these obstacles: fast-track new technology; target locations with renewable energy access; re-use or retrofit existing infrastructure; form co-investing ventures for vessels, fueling equipment and other critical assets; and form consortiums to develop the demand-side market.
Another point to consider is whether or not the latest generation of new fuels and technologies can apply to large deep-sea vessels.
For example, the mainstreaming of electric vehicles and the growth of the green hydrogen market suggest at least two pathways to zero-emission oceangoing vessels.
However, under today’s technology the logistics are formidable. Last week Guardian reporter Fiona Harvey outlined some of the obstacles:
"There are severe logistical difficulties with decarbonizing shipping: an electric ship, for instance, would require the equivalent of 10,000 Tesla batteries a day to cross the Atlantic. Hydrogen is another proposed fuel, but… on current estimates it would take 60% of the world’s renewable energy generation to produce enough hydrogen to power shipping.”
Harvey’s reporting suggests that a fuel and technology solution is not up to the job of cutting shipping emissions quickly.
She notes that the International Chamber of Shipping is backing a $2 levy on every metric ton of shipping fuel, with the aim of raising $500 million annually for R&D on zero emission vessels. The proposal has been submitted to the U.N. International Maritime Organization. Greece, Japan, Switzerland, Singapore, Malta, Nigeria, Liberia, Georgia and Palau, which represent 40 percent of commercial shipping, have already signed on in support.
However, Harvey reports that the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and other climate action groups have charged that the levy is inadequate and would distract from more effective carbon pricing strategies.
Despite the obstacles, the shipping industry will decarbonize - eventually. Maersk and other industry leaders have already invested significant sums in zero-carbon research and development, though progress has been slow. Maersk’s showpiece carbon neutral project, for example, is a smaller vessel designed for regional hops rather than deep-sea travel.
The real problem is how to achieve a more rapid, significant reduction in shipping emissions over the short term.
One strategy under discussion is slow steaming, which simply refers to reducing the speed of a vessel. According to some estimates, reducing ship speed by 10 percent can reduce emissions by 27 percent. That scenario is not as rosy as it may seem, considering that more ships would be needed to fill the same transport capacity.
Overall, the switch to slow steaming could reduce carbon emissions by almost 20 percent, but shippers may balk at the need to hire more crew in addition to investing in more ships.
A more holistic solution would be to regionalize manufacturing, in order to reduce the need for overseas shipping overall. The emergence of locally sourced materials, 3-D printing and other new manufacturing technologies could help. However, there is little prospect of the global shipping industry getting behind such a proposal.
Consumers could also make a difference, by making lifestyle changes that support the plastic-free movement and other strategies for reducing waste and consumption. Again, it would be difficult to rally shipping stakeholders to support movements that reduce the number of ships at sea.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S. President Biden has yet to announce specific plans for decarbonizing maritime industries.
However, a strategy appears to be coalescing with the appointments of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and EPA chief Michael Regan. Along with coordinating on policy-based solutions, the three agencies will likely ramp up their collaboration on technology R&D.
In addition, the Department of Defense could play a significant role in pushing new technology R&D. The Navy has been an early adopter of biofuels and other carbon-reducing strategies, for example.
The change of power in Congress also bears watching. Earlier this year the National Law Review took stock of the pent-up momentum for change building in the Biden administration, including the introduction of the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act by House Democrats last October.
Among other carbon-reducing measures, the bill would encourage voluntary speed reduction in the Exclusive Economic Zone.
The bill would have likely died in a Republican-controlled Senate, but the 2020 election cycle has provided Democrats with a slim majority in the Senate.
With all this in mind, it’s little wonder that the Getting to Zero Coalition continues to grow its membership, the latest addition being China’s GAC Group. As the National Law Review notes, “stakeholders who fear the uncertainty of new environmental regulatory standards are advised to engage early in the process.”
Image credit: Jimmy Nguyen/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.