On Transport day of COP26 climate change conference, the focus of all discussions and announcements turned to greener marine transportation. According to the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) estimates, shipping, which plays an important role in transporting 90% of all world trade, is responsible for 2 – 3% of all global greenhouse gas emissions annually. Given the essential role of the shipping industry in global transport and trade, it comes as no surprise that decarbonisation of the industry was one of the main themes of the international climate change conference.    

COP26 saw some ambitious declarations made in relation to cutting shipping emissions. A bright future of the shipping industry was envisaged at the Blue Zone event titled The Course to Zero: Developing Ambition in Marine Decarbonisation – the panellists suggested that the international maritime transportation could not only get to Net Zero, but indeed reach zero emissions by 2050. Many believe that the shipping industry has the potential to become green enough for there to be no need for carbon offsetting.

In order to reach the zero emissions goal, commitments have already been made by numerous countries. Some 19 countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Japan and the USA, have signed the Clydebank Declaration for Green Shipping Corridors, which aims to introduce zero-emission maritime routes between two or more ports. The aim of the Clydebank Declaration is to establish at least six green corridors by 2025 and many more by the end of the decade. Satellite observations could be used to identify and understand the operating patterns of individual ships and estimating where low-cost hydrogen might be available as an alternative marine fuel. This will make it easier to identify voyages which can decarbonise and are best suited for the first green corridors.

The signatories have pledged to cooperate with willing ports and operators to decarbonise specific routes and create partnerships to accelerate the decarbonisation of the whole shipping industry. The purpose is to lead by positive incentives and encourage change towards green fuels and technologies by creating greener industry policies and public-private partnerships. Maersk, the largest shipping company in the world, is leading the industry by example and has recently ordered eight new vessels which run on clean electricity, a carbon-neutral fuel.

On top of the Clydebank Declaration, the UK’s Department for Transport in partnership with the offshore wind industry announced Operation Zero which aims to decarbonise offshore wind operations and the offshore support vessels in the North Sea’s offshore windfarms. This initiative will see a coalition of 28 signatories including countries like Germany, Sweden and Denmark, as well as industry majors such as Siemens Gamesa, ScottishPower Renewables and Vattenfall. It has been estimated that nearly 1,400 new offshore support vessels will be built by 2050 to support the growing offshore wind industry. Operation Zero is aiming to have zero emission vessels in operation in the North Sea by 2025

The UK Government has recently shown interest in supporting new innovation to help with decarbonising the shipping industry, by launching the Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition (CMDC) in March 2021.  The competition allocated more than £23 million to UK innovators developing net zero technologies and greener ports. Amongst the 55 winners of the CMDC are, for example, a company making an all-electric charged points which could power boats using 100% renewable wind energy.

Due to the international nature of shipping, as is well accepted within the industry, successful decarbonisation of the shipping industry as a whole is dependent on international cooperation between policy makers and all industry players. The above developments are extremely encouraging and show that there is a true interest in collective action to cut emissions in the shipping industry. To that end, the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee’s (MEPC) held its 77th meeting last week to discuss practical steps towards achieving these COP26 goals for a greener maritime transportation industry. Although the goal to reach zero emissions by 2050 was rejected, the IMO has taken concrete steps towards a greener future. A resolution on voluntary use of cleaner fuels in the Arctic was passed, which will seek to reduce black carbon emissions in the Arctic waters. The MEPC is also planning to revise the IMO GHG Strategy in 2023, with concrete proposals expected from the member states and international organisations by June 2022.