Around the world, ocean plastics, species loss, and climate change seem to finally matter on a personal and political level. At last, we are waking up to the fact that there is no Planet B.
At all levels, from individual lifestyle choices, to monumental policy shifts, climate action is happening. And although not without its own challenges, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement stands at the pinnacle: a global pledge to hold our planet well below 2℃ of warming. But, a major part of the global economy is not yet on board – and it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of!
International maritime shipping transports 90 per cent of all our goods globally; that’s more than 10 billion tonnes of oil, wood, silicone, orange juice, trainers, furniture, laptops, fish fingers and much more that criss-cross our ocean each year.
Shipping also contributes 2.4 per cent of global greenhouse gases (GHGs), equivalent to the total emissions of Germany. Yet, the shipping industry isn’t governed by individual states and so it’s not bound by the Paris Agreement. It’s regulated globally by the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which has yet to implement any plans or targets to reduce total GHGs.
International maritime shipping transports 90 per cent of all our goods globally.
That could begin to change. With experts recently showing that shipping could almost be fossil-fuel-free by 2035 using existing technology, the IMO has an opportunity to set ambitious targets. To avert the most devastating effects of climate change, the shipping industry must chart a new course in line with Paris, which means aiming for 70-100 per cent decarbonisation by 2050 (based on 2008 baseline levels).
Getting ambitious targets from IMO won’t be plain sailing. Until 18 months ago, the conversation was focused only on how to make incremental improvements to energy efficiency, far short of the ambition necessary. Totally eliminating the use of fossil fuels for propulsion is a very new concept to this typically slow-changing industry. A Paris-aligned target would shift the shipping’s industry entire business model in just 30 years, which is barely longer than the lifespan of a single ship. However, there is political and economic resistance, with many still not believing that fossil fuel-free shipping is possible despite all the evidence.
This conservative mind-set often drives regulation at IMO, but corporate capture of the levers of power at the IMO is also an issue. Last year, InfluenceMap released an industry-shaking report detailing the aggressive lobbying by industry groups against action on climate change. It also highlighted that, at the most recent Marine Environmental Protection Committee meeting, 31 per cent of nations were represented in-part by direct business interests.
Climate pressure is now building on shipping from across the supply chain. Consumer brands are working to reduce their emissions and are becoming frustrated with the lack of basic transparency and data availability around emissions. Digital tools like performance monitoring and blockchain are maturing and ready to support them in opening up this data black box. Shipping just needs to be stirred into action.
Every consumer, business person and entrepreneur has the power to question and exert pressure on shipping’s decision-makers, directly and indirectly.
Low and zero-carbon fuels are also gaining traction. Short routes like Scandinavian ferry crossings are being electrified. Methanol and biofuels are being trialled and used commercially. Hydrogen innovators are turning a disruptive eye to the industry. These outside forces, combined with high-impact energy efficient technologies like modern sails and air lubrication suggest that the momentum is very much towards a more climate-friendly future for shipping.
Paris-aligned action is still more of a hope than an expectation this year. There’s significant lobbying at IMO for a low-ambition target, even in the wake of the InfluenceMap report. And among the huge ‘flag states’ that wield greatest influence at the IMO, the Marshall Islands – a nation literally struggling to keep their heads above water in the face of climate change – is almost the sole voice in favour of rapid decarbonisation. We can no longer afford to be “sea-blind”; a phrase often used to describe why an industry that calls itself the backbone of global trade is so often overlooked by the media and the general public.
Every consumer, business person and entrepreneur has the power to question and exert pressure on shipping’s decision-makers, directly and indirectly. Demanding to know the carbon footprint of the products we buy is a good start. The more that brands calculate their environmental impact and assess the emissions related to their supply chain, the more they will put pressure on the shipping industry. Ensuring companies and suppliers have science-based emissions reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement and a plan on how to achieve those targets can have a huge impact.
The status quo must no longer go unseen and unquestioned – together we can pull shipping into the global spotlight and demand change.
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