The global shipping industry is beginning the long process towards reducing its dependence on fossil fuels, Inside Climate News reported in February. Cargo ships are currently responsible for as much as 17% of carbon dioxide emissions, making reducing fossil fuel dependence by the global shipping fleet a major step in averting significant warming over the 21stcentury.
The current charge is being led by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the multinational group that coordinates shipping around the world. The IMO is targeting a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Maersk, the shipping giant, has gone even further by aiming to make the company’s fleet carbon-neutral by 2050.
The problem is that a 2050 goal puts the industry on an incredibly tight schedule. Cargo ships have a 20-25-year lifespan, meaning that ships running completely on renewable energy would need to be deployed by the early 2030’s to hit Maersk’s 2050 target. Considering that the technology and economics for a fully carbon-free cargo ship are a long way from being realized, this makes even the IMO’s more conservative goal something of a moonshot.
More immediately, though, the IMO is thinking about ways to combat shipping’s other environmental catastrophe: air pollution.
Many cargo ships currently burn heavy fuel, which is less refined that fuels like diesel and produces a smog from ashy particulate matter. Shipping pollution is a deadly concern around the world’s major port cities, which the IMO has already taken steps to address.
Now, the organization is considering a full ban on burning heavy fuel in the Arctic Ocean to prevent environmental damage to the polar region as new shipping lanes open. The potential ban has support from the US and several Scandinavian countries, but importantly has yet to receive open support from Canada or Russia.
Overall, the IMO’s moves towards reducing carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution from the global shipping fleet are important steps in the right direction. However, it remains to be seen whether the heavy fuel ban will receive support, or whether renewable technology can keep pace with the industry’s lofty emissions reductions goals.