All about technology and forces shaping the energy transition in shipping

3 A’s for maritime decarbonisation: Ambition

July 1, 2023
Figure 1: Overview of the targets and ambitions being proposed by different groups.
EU, Japan, Island nationsUSA, Ocean Rebellion, Trafigura, MMMCZCS

The IMO is set to convene next week for MEPC 80. Many anticipate more ambitious 2050 goals as well as interim targets. New milestones will affect everything – the fuels that vessels will run on, the technologies that are on board and most likely, the way we fundamentally do business. It’s a fitting time to pick up on where I left off with a previous post and talk more about Ambition for maritime decarbonisation.

Why is deep decarbonisation of shipping necessary?

Almost every discussion that brings together climate and shipping provides these statics: over 90% of traded good are transported by sea, and shipping accounts for about 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions. But what do these really numbers really mean?

Though out of sight for most people, the maritime industry is massive. Over 10.6 billion tons of cargo is moved by ships annually. That is a whopping 1.3 tons of goods – about equal to the weight of 6,500 medium weight cotton t-shirts – for every single person on our planet, every year. The physical footprint of all the cargo transported by vessels in 2020 was 58,865 billion ton-miles – that is equivalent to shipping 1 kg of potatoes from the earth to Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to us after the sun, over 42 times. Consequently, shipping also has an enormous impact on climate. Each year, shipping emits over 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere. If the shipping industry were a country, it would be the 6th largest polluter, with a footprint lower than that of Japan and higher than Iran.

The types and sizes of vessels, the goods they carry and the routes they ply will change to reflect changes in the global economy. But shipping will continue to underpin life as we know it. We would be doing ourselves, our planet, and the future of humanity an immense disservice by not thinking big in the context of shipping.

Where did the 1.5°C target come from and where do we stand today?

The idea that temperature could be used to guide society’s response to climate change was first proposed by an economist half a century ago. In a 1975 paper on the economics of climate change, William Nordhaus (winner of the 2018 Nobel prize in economics), pondered about what might constitute a reasonable limit of global temperature rise for humanity to achieve. Subsequently, the 2°C limit he proposed was alluded to by the Stockholm Institute in 1990, and later found itself referred to frequently in political settings. As warming continued and researchers delved into its effects on climate, the implications became clearer, and it has come to be widely recognised that the ‘acceptable’ limit is 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The first UNFCCC document to refer to this limit was the Cancun Agreement, adopted at COP 16 in 2010.

Using temperature rise as a metric is simple and sticky, but also deceptive. We often forget that an average of 1.5°C means that several areas on the planet will see much higher rises in temperature and witness far-reaching changes in biodiversity and natural capital. Uncertainty increases with global warming; events like earthquakes, wildfires, floods, hurricanes and the Covid pandemic have already started to become unnervingly common. The average warming over land and ocean stands at +0.86°C today. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is at a global average of 417.06 ppm, 50% higher than it was before the Industrial Revolution. The ocean has absorbed enough carbon dioxide to lower its pH by 0.1 units, a 30% increase in acidity. Earlier this year, researchers published an update on the planetary boundaries which showed that in seven of the eight cases, thresholds for a safe and just world have already been crossed. The word ‘polycrisis’ is beginning to be used to describe the world we’re living in.

If shipping’s emissions remain constant at 2018 levels, we will burn through the remainder of the industry’s share of the global 1.5°C-aligned carbon budget in just 7 years from now.

What should shipping’s ambition be?

Different countries, coalitions and organisations are backing different targets and ambitions (see Figure 1 above). The key underpinning questions are:

  • What will the level of ambition be?
  • Will well-to-wake or tank-to-wake emissions be considered?
  • Will targets refer to CO2 emissions, GHG emissions or CO2e (including black carbon)?
  • Will there be mid-term measures?
  • Will the plan represent commitment to a just and equitable transition?

Despite this, at the end of the inter sessional working group meeting over the past week, the IMO appears to be heading in a direction that is not 1.5°C-aligned and several of the technical details in the draft text of the new targets are nebulously worded.

The end goal for shipping must be zero emissions and zero negative impacts. If we unfortunately realise, in an unfamiliar and unforeseen world a decade from now that we did not aim high enough back in 2023, it will be too late to change course.

We should set shipping on a rapid and ambitious decarbonisation trajectory towards that end goal and do all that it requires of us. We should do these things – appropriating JFK’s famous words – not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.

Further reading: For details on where discussions stand after the ISWG GHG 15, read UMAS’ overview.

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