Negotiators from nearly all countries reached an interim agreement on Thursday to effectively eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the shipping industry as close to 2050 as possible.
The breakthrough was made at an annual meeting in London of the International Maritime Organization, the global shipping regulator. The agreement, which will be formally signed on Friday, also sets targets for reducing emissions to be achieved by 2030 and 2040.
According to delegates who attended the talks, which were closed to reporters, the ambitions of the agreement were moderated by representatives of countries with important economic interests in oil production and maritime trade.
But a strong last-minute push from small island nations and other poorer coastal countries led to commitments from the organization that are in line with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s the threshold most climate scientists 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 are not perfect, but they allow us to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius. And that’s what we came here to do.”
The shipping industry is responsible for about 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Ships that transport fuel, ore, grain and containers full of consumer goods typically burn heavy fuel oil, which is more emission-intensive 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 poised for growth. Currently, about 90 percent of international trade takes place on ships.
Transitioning away from that fuel will require governments, as well as oil and gas companies, to invest in zero-emissions alternatives. These could include green hydrogen or its derivative, green ammonia. Such fuels are produced using renewable electricity such as wind and solar energy to power processes that convert water into fuel.
That transition is not as simple as just subsidizing more 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 still cleaner than heavy fuel oil. While those new ships outsold oil-dependent ones last year for the first time, ships generally remain in use for at least 25 years, meaning the vast majority of the world’s 60,000-odd cargo ships are heavy polluters.
The IMO agreement is not binding, and is intended more as a signal to governments as to where they should benchmark their own goals. It stipulates that by 2030, governments should require shipping companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by “at least 20 percent” compared to 2008. By 2040, this increases to “at least 70 percent.”
A so-called net-zero goal, at which point industry would largely eliminate its emissions and offset the remaining amount, is meant to be reached “by or around, ie near 2050.”
Pacific island nations in particular have been fighting for a more definitive 2050 target specifically. While many of them rely heavily on shipping for tax revenue, they have also suffered disproportionately from the effects of climate change driven by sea level rise and supercharged cyclones. Negotiators described their strategy as “high risk, high reward.”
“This important step would not have been possible without unwavering peaceful leadership,” said Albon Ishoda, the Marshall Islands negotiator at the talks, “as well as deep solidarity from countries all over the world recognizing our vulnerability and heeding our call.”