It's Time for Maritime Transport to Get on Board With Climate Action
After years of neglecting its responsibility to address the climate crisis, it is time for the global shipping industry to take meaningful action to eliminate its carbon footprint.
Despite the fact that global maritime activity is responsible for nearly 3% of the world’s carbon emissions — or about as much as the country of Germany — the shipping industry has been a clear laggard when it comes to climate action.
Notoriously left out of the Paris Agreement, emissions from shipping rose 5.6% between 2012 and 2018, and could double by 2050, given the expected increase in global trade. If we hope to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, worldwide emissions must fall, immediately, dramatically and across all sectors of the economy — the shipping industry can’t shirk its responsibility any longer.
Much of the blame for shipping’s lackluster response to the climate emergency can be laid at the feet of the International Maritime Organization, or IMO. As a specialized agency of the United Nations, the IMO has a global mandate to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from international maritime transportation. Unfortunately, the organization’s regulatory approach has been inadequate.
The centerpiece of the IMO’s emissions reduction strategy is a mandate for the sector to reduce GHG emissions by 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 levels. Yet, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, that target is insufficient — to reach the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the industry must meet that target by 2030, a full two decades earlier than currently required.
Fortunately, the IMO’s inaction has not stopped some private sector leaders from stepping up on climate action. Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, has committed to reach net zero across its value chain by 2050 and has set an interim science-based emissions reduction target under the Business Ambition 1.5C initiative. Royal Caribbean recently became the first cruise line to announce its intention to set a science-based target as part of a broader company goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. And a coalition of 200 signatories signed a Call to Action urging governments to commit to decarbonizing the global shipping industry by 2050 under the auspices of the Getting to Zero Coalition, a corporate alliance organized to accelerate the shift to zero-emission shipping.
As promising as these individual commitments are, shifting the shipping industry at the pace and scale that we need will require immediate and ambitious targets sector-wide.That’s why Ceres launched our Ambition 2030 initiative, which is working to decarbonize the six highest emitting sectors in the economy, and shipping will play a critical role in reducing global transportation emissions. When big companies act on their commitments, impacts ripple through their supply chain and a competitive cascade helps push peers to act.
Pressure on the industry is building as more countries take action. At this month’s United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow, 14 countries, including the United States and Denmark, backed a goal to eliminate emissions from maritime transportation by 2050. In Europe, the United Kingdom has called for the shipping industry to meet net zero emissions by 2050, while the European Union is seeking to decarbonize the sector by moving to include shipping in its Emissions Trading Scheme. Additionally, over 20 countries, including the United States, Japan, and Germany, announced the Clydebank Declaration, an agreement to support the establishment of green shipping corridors, defined as zero emission maritime routes, between two or more port pairs.
To deliver on the ambition behind corporate and country targets, we need comprehensive international regulations that incentivize an industry-wide shift to a zero-carbon future. And that means we need the IMO to take decisive action. Robust action will not only prevent the worst consequences of climate change, it will provide a lifeline to shipping companies on the front lines of the climate crisis. Aggressive action today can prevent increases in global surface temperatures, sea levels, extreme weather events and agricultural losses, all of which will impact maritime transportation companies. The good news is that the IMO has the opportunity to chart a new course.
This week, the IMO’s Marine Environmental Protection Committee is meeting to discuss several items related to industry-wide decarbonization. The agenda includes a discussion on establishing a $100 levy per ton of carbon dioxide emissions from oceangoing vessels, designed to bridge the gap between relatively cheap carbon-intensive bunker fuels and more expensive low-carbon options. Delegates will also discuss whether the committee and the IMO should recognize that international maritime transport must reach zero emissions no later than 2050.
Recognizing the need to accelerate decarbonization across international maritime activity, it is critical that those with voting power at the IMO support initiatives that align with global climate goals. This upcoming meeting is a critical opportunity for the IMO to ensure the decarbonization of the maritime transportation sector. Our planet cannot afford for the IMO to miss the boat.