The shipping industry contributes around 2% of all global carbon emissions – a figure comparable to the entire CO2 emissions of a country the size of Germany. In many ways that isn’t surprising: shipping powers the world economy, and carries 90% of all international trade. But although people understand the link between trade and prosperity, they quite rightly demand it is done in a responsible and environmentally friendly way.
Globalised trade has brought rapid growth and helped see a remarkable fall in extreme poverty around the world, but it is not without negative consequences. Scientists say that to stave off potentially dangerous levels of warming later in the century, global emissions need to decline quickly to near-zero. CO2 emissions last about 100 years in the atmosphere once emitted, which means that the benefits of reducing CO2 emissions today will be stretched over a century into the future.
That’s why the decision made on Friday by the International Maritime Organisation to cut shipping’s carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2050 is so important. But what’s also important is to understand that this target is merely a stepping stone towards full decarbonisation in the longer term.
In this area, the shipping industry has already made great strides. Battery-powered ferries operate in Scotland, Scandinavia and elsewhere. Huge investment has gone into improving hydrodynamics, designing more efficient engines and producing lower-carbon fuels. But make no mistake: these marginal gains alone are not enough to meet the 50% target. Certainly they will not be enough to meet the public’s expectations for an industry that is almost fully decarbonised.
In truth, there is widespread understanding that in the long term, commercial vessels need to be powered by carbon-free fuel; that will almost certainly mean a mix of batteries, hydrogen and other zero-carbon energy sources.
Though revolutionary, the batteries that already do power some ships can at the moment only fuel relatively small vessels operating on very short routes of no more than 50 miles. By contrast, longest port-to-port voyages for the biggest ships often cover several thousand miles. Some small hydrogen-fuelled vessels already exist, but they come with immense technical challenges and huge cost.
Furthermore, given that the lifespan of many ships is as long as 30 years, whatever technology is developed to reduce the industry’s carbon emissions will quite possibly need to be retrofitted, and so must be able to work with existing designs.
The only answer, therefore, is research and development on a massive scale. Last year the UK Government put £250m of investment into battery R&D, but that was targeted almost exclusively at the automotive sector. Not one pound is currently allocated for the development of zero-carbon fuels for the shipping industry.
That means that the UK is losing the race. Other countries around the world are already investing in such fuels. The UK could, of course, leave them to it. But if the future vision includes having virtually every ship in the world using zero-carbon energy sources, then the country that pioneers this game-changing technology will be the country that reaps the economic benefits through private sector investment and job and wealth creation for years to come.
The Government regularly says it wants to strengthen the UK’s status as a world leader in technology. Here is its chance. A huge global industry needs to find a technological solution to a huge global problem. If we believe in a truly global Britain, then we should make sure we are the ones to find it.
Trade is as vital now as it ever has been, and as formerly third-world countries begin to spread their wings and trade their way to prosperity, the need for international shipping will only grow. If, post-Brexit, the UK is to become a global free-trading nation then we have a responsibility to ensure that trade is conducted in a way that does not harm the environment. We should take that responsibility seriously.
The UK can lead the way in making trade green, not just because of the economic benefits it will bring, but simply because it is the right thing to do.
Guy Platten is CEO of the UK chamber of shipping