Negotiators from almost every country on Thursday reached a tentative agreement to effectively eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the shipping industry by 2050 as much as possible.
The breakthrough was made at an annual meeting in London of the International Maritime Organization, the world’s shipping regulator. The agreement, which will be officially signed on Friday, also sets emission reduction targets to be achieved by 2030 and 2040.
According to delegates at the talks, which are closed to reporters, the ambitions of the deal were tempered by representatives of countries with major economic interests in oil production and maritime trade.
But a strong last-minute push from small island nations and other poorer coastal nations has led to commitments by the organization that are in line with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is the threshold that most climatologists say the world must avoid crossing to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
“We fought tooth and nail for these numbers,” said Carlos Fuller, Belize’s representative to the United Nations, who also negotiated on behalf of the small Caribbean nation in London. “They’re not perfect, but they keep us within 1.5 degrees Celsius. And that’s what we came here to do.
The shipping industry accounts for approximately 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Ships that transport fuel, ore, grain and containers full of consumer goods typically burn heavy fuel oil, which produces more emissions than most other fossil fuels.
As the world’s population continues to grow and countries develop more robust trade, the global shipping industry is also set to grow. Currently, around 90% of international trade takes place on ships.
To move away from this fuel, governments, as well as oil and gas companies, will need to invest in zero-emission alternatives. These could include green hydrogen or its derivative, green ammonia. These fuels are produced using renewable electricity, such as wind and solar power, to power processes that turn water into fuel.
This transition is not as simple as further subsidizing hydrogen production. New ships, new tankers, new pipelines and even new port infrastructure will be needed to facilitate its use.
Shipbuilders have already started delivering ships that can run on liquefied natural gas, which is still a fossil fuel but nevertheless cleaner than heavy fuel oil. While these new ships first sold out last year, oil-dependent ships typically stay in service for at least 25 years, meaning the vast majority of the world’s roughly 60,000 freighters are big polluters.
The IMO agreement is non-binding and is more about telling governments where they should assess their own targets. It states that by 2030, governments should require shipping companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by “at least 20%” compared to 2008. By 2040, this will increase to “at less than 70%”.
A so-called net zero target, in which case industry would have largely eliminated its emissions and offset the remaining amount, is supposed to be achieved “by or about, i.e. close to 2050”.
Pacific island nations in particular had been fighting for a more definitive goal of 2050 in particular. While many of them rely heavily on shipping for their tax revenues, they have also been disproportionately impacted by rising sea levels and supercharged cyclones brought on by climate change. Traders described their strategy as “high risk, high reward.”
“This milestone would not have been possible without the unwavering leadership of the Pacific,” said Albon Ishoda, the Marshall Islands’ negotiator at the talks, “as well as the deep solidarity of countries around the world recognizing our vulnerability and responding to our call”.