The fundamental building block of modern life is a corrugated steel rectangle eight feet wide, eight-and-a-half feet tall and 20 feet long.
Around three percent of today’s carbon dioxide emissions come from the shipping industry, courtesy of the fossil fuels burnt by the 90,000 ships that are responsible for 90 percent of all trade on the planet, according to the Financial Times. That much carbon dioxide each year is roughly equivalent to Germany's emissions.
In 2020, despite the global downturn in global trade due to lockdowns, cargo ships criss-crossed the oceans transporting nearly 60 trillion ton-miles worth of goods. Almost all were burning dirty fossil fuels. However, multiple technologies are now being both tested and implemented in order to switch the vast global cargo shipping industry into a cleaner, greener enterprise. Indeed, it seems that the political, economic and technological stars are aligning to make a stubbornly carbon-intensive industry sustainable.
On the political front, in April last year, Joe Biden's administration pushed the International Maritime Organization, which originally announced a plan to reduce shipping emissions by 70 percent, to go completely carbon-neutral by 2050. In October, a group of nine retailer bohemoths, including Amazon and Ikea, added pressure by committing to zero-carbon shipping by 2040. And at the UN Climate Conference last November, a group of 14 major shipping economies - including Denmark, US, UK, Germany, France and Panama - pledged to achieve zero-emission shipping by 2050.
It's a good start, particularly as these commitments from governments and corporations are made credible by the recent (and rapid) development of technologies that make carbon-free shipping possible. “There isn’t anything technologically insurmountable here,” says Nishatabbas Rehmatulla, a senior research fellow at the University College London Energy Institute.
So, what technology is being utilised to clean up shipping? The answer is many and varied. From cargo ships growing wings (using air propulsion similar to sails), and new fully battery electric shipping: Yara Birkeland, the world's first all-electric and emissions-free container ship, has completed its maiden voyage in Norway and successfully proven the concept. Meanwhile, the UK has begun work on regulations that would allow the safe and standardized application of nuclear propulsion in the shipping industry.
Of all promising avenues, however, ammonia, a hydrogen product more stable and storable than hydrogen itself, is the most likely replacement for oil in shipping. Shipbuilding companies across the globe are investing in ammonia-powered vessels soon to hit the sea. Finnish marine technology firm Wartsila, for example, is currently developing a ship engine that will run completely on zero-carbon ammonia by 2023. The company is already manufacturing engines that can run on biogas, synthetic methane and other hydrogen-based fuels.
For the tens of thousand ships already at sea, advancements in retrofitting technologies will allow existing fleets to become more sustainable. The ability to retrofit, rather than replace, is crucial from a cost perspective.
With action from the private sector and public support, decarbonizing the shipping sector in the near future is an ambitious but entirely possible goal. A 2021 study from the Getting to Zero Coalition - a collaboration between the Global Maritime Forum, Friends of Ocean Action and the World Economic Forum - estimates that zero-carbon fuels need to make up just five percent of the fuel mix by the end of this decade for the shipping industry to meet Paris Accord goals.
“We don’t need to eat the whole elephant straight away,” says Rehmatulla. “I’m optimistic. There are lots of challenges, but they are all challenges we can overcome.”