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.