Climate, biodiversity and the crisis facing international shipping

Posted on 15 October 2020

The global shipping industry has the potential to lead the way to a planet where people and nature thrive, or risk it all, write Andrew Dumbrille and Elissama Menezes.
The shipping industry plays an essential role in the global economy and in our everyday life, which comes with great responsibility and impacts.

The shipping sector’s CO2 emissions are greater than Germany’s, and they are expected, under a business as usual scenario, to increase 50 per cent by 2050. Over the last six years, the sector's emissions have increased by 10 per cent.

The Paris Agreement called for a global effort to limit global warming to 1.5˚C, but left the responsibility for setting targets and reducing emissions from the shipping sector to the International Maritime Organization (IMO). As the world moves toward a net-zero future by mid-century, the IMO needs to do the same and embrace an ambitious path forward to rapidly reduce and eliminate climate impacts from shipping.


The plan to reduce shipping emissions

Vessels that travel between ports in different countries are regulated by the IMO, a United Nations agency responsible for safety and security measures and to prevent pollution from ships.

The IMO has adopted an initial strategy for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from international shipping, including improvements to vessel energy efficiency and reducing the whole shipping sector's carbon intensity by at least 40 per cent by 2030 and pursuing efforts towards 70 per cent by 2050. The combined effort aims to achieve the target of at least 50 per cent absolute GHG emissions reduction by 2050 and phasing them out later this century.

The targets included in the IMO initial strategy fail to contribute to shipping's fair share of efforts consistent with keeping global temperature rise to 1.5˚C. Stronger goals and tighter regulations need to be adopted in the final strategy in 2023, mainly a goal of complete decarbonization by 2050. This would enable the IMO and the shipping sector to truly play a leadership role on the way to a zero emissions future.  

The actions that the shipping sector takes over the next decade will make or break the deal for a clean sector, and global efforts to keep temperature rise below 1.5˚C.

Slower ship speeds globally are a triple win for wildlife, people, and the world

The initial IMO strategy provides for short-, medium-, and long-term measures to be agreed upon and adopted by 2023, 2030 and 2050, respectively. Operational efficiency, regulated via a carbon intensity indicator using both real-world fuel consumption and cargo carried, is likely to be the most effective short term measure, and the cheapest and easiest way for many shipowners to comply with such a measure would simply be to slow down.
A 10 per cent speed reduction can be translated into 19 per cent GHG reduction, 40 per cent underwater noise pollution reduction and results in fewer ship strikes to whales as a double bonus. Vessel strikes are a recognized cause of mortality for whales worldwide. All vessel types can collide with a whale, but larger vessels travelling at higher speeds have a higher chance of killing the animal and causing more severe impact. Vessel noise can also alter whales' daily activities, including foraging, surfacing, resting, predator avoidance, communicating, socializing, mating and nurturing calves, and can lead to fewer offspring and higher death rates.
The upcoming round of negotiations at the IMO in October and November will be decisive to agree on an ambitious target for GHG intensity reductions, which will incentivize slow steaming. A global vessel speed reduction is a triple win for wildlife, nature and people. 

Ship of the Future

In the short, medium- and long-term, 1.5˚C aligned targets, research and development of zero-emission fuels and technologies, and a massive scale-up of production of zero-emission fuels are all needed. The role for industry has never been more pressing and essential in developing the ships and fuels of the future. The Getting to Zero Coalition and its commitment to shift to, at scale, deep sea zero emissions vessels and fuels by 2030 and the Sustainable Shipping Initiative is developing strategies to decarbonize the shipping sector by 2050.

With a renewed and ambitious 1.5˚C aligned GHG reduction framework from the IMO driving innovation and investment from the private sector, real progress can be made. 

However, the job before the international community and IMO next meetings is to put in place concrete actions now, to incentivize efficiency, bring down the sector’s emissions in the very near term, and steer ships on a greener route for the future.

Andrew Dumbrille is a sustainable shipping specialist at WWF-Canada. Elissama Menezes is an associate specialist, marine conservation and shipping at WWF-Canada.
White-beaked dolphin jumping in front of a freighter ship.
© Ola Jennersten / WWF-Sweden