Sailing Toward Sustainability: Tackling GHG Emissions in the Maritime Industry

  • Authorship
    Greg Clough, Consultant writer, editor, communications trainer
  • Article type Blog
  • Publication date 28 Sep 2023

“We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now.

- Martin Luther King Jr. 


Have you ever stood in the frothing shallows at the beach, watching ships slowly cruise the horizon, wondering where they're heading and what they're carrying? It's a pleasant daydream. If you have the chance, today would be just the time to visit the beach and indulge in that daydream ... well, okay, just about any day is a good day to paddle in the shallows ... but today makes it a bit different because September 28 is the United Nations World Maritime Day. 

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UN World Maritime Day promotes awareness about the critical role the shipping industry plays in global trade, economic development, and people's welfare around the world. The day also highlights the UN's International Maritime Organization's (IMO) responsibility for overseeing the safety, security, and environmental sustainability of international shipping. 

International trade and the global economy are founded on maritime transport. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development says over 80% of the volume of international trade in goods is carried by sea. The percentage is even higher in the developing world. 

But why would a blog from the Green Climate Fund’s (GCF) Independent Evaluation Unit (IEU) be interested in Maritime Day? Partly because World Maritime Day 2023 is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and mainly because the maritime sector is a significant source of global greenhouse gase (GHG) emissions.  

But, first, pollution. Large ships, especially cargo ships, can cause all sorts of pollution. They use fuels that release nitrogen and sulphur oxides and particulate matter. Nitrogen oxide helps generate ozone and smog and causes respiratory illnesses. Burnt sulphur can also cause breathing problems and lead to acid rain. Meanwhile, particulate matter contributes to haze and reduced visibility – and, of course, respiratory disease.  

When ships take on ballast water in one location and discharge it in another, they risk introducing invasive species that disrupt ecosystems. These invaders can compete with native species for food, habitat, and breeding sites. They can also upset the delicate balance between predators and prey and affect biodiversity. 

Shipping also has a long history of oil and chemical spills. In 2018, the Panamanian-flagged tanker Sanchi collided with another ship off Shanghai, killing all the Sanchi’s crew and leaving behind a 100 square km oil slick, damaging beaches, marine life and the local fishing industry. To put this in perspective, the Sanchi incident is one of the least serious oil leaks in modern shipping history.  

While the primary effect of shipping-caused pollution is on the immediate environment, it also contributes to GHG emissions. Various estimates suggest that overall, including through pollution, cargo handling, port vehicles and fugitive emissions from auxiliary equipment like refrigeration, the maritime sector accounts for almost 3% of all global (GHG) emissions. Some estimates suggest that if global shipping were a country, it would be the sixth largest producer of GHGs. Even worse, projections show that these emissions could increase by up to 130% of 2008 emissions by 2050. 

That’s why the IMO 50th anniversary of MARPOL is important. Already the IMO is committing. In July 2023, it released its Revised GHG reduction strategy for global shipping. The strategy’s aims include improving the energy efficiency of ships, reducing CO2 emissions across international shipping by 40% by 2030 compared to 2008, increasing by up to 10% the use of near-zero GHG emission technologies, fuels and energy by 2030, and reaching net-zero GHG emissions by or around 2050. 

The strategy is ambitious and, as the IMO admits, faces many challenges. The IMO recognizes that many developing countries will need capacity-building, technical cooperation and financial support to decarbonize their shipping sectors and implement energy efficiency measures.  

(c) IMO. Adoption of the 2023 IMO Strategy on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships during the 80th Session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) at IMO HQ (07/07/2023).

The IMO also acknowledges that the strategy faces hurdles in developing and making zero or near-zero GHG emission technologies, fuels and energy globally available. And then there is the challenge of finding public and private funding for developing the associated port infrastructure. Even the seemingly simple task of training seafarers in the skills necessary to support GHG emission reductions on ships presents challenges. The IMO will have to review seafarer training instruments and guidance while also ensuring all new emissions technologies are safe for maritime workers. 

If the shipping industry can succeed in decarbonizing, the benefits will be manifold. According to Allyson Browne of US-based NGO Pacific Environment in an interview with Forbes Magazine, “Shipping’s zero-emission transition will transform ports from hotspots of fossil fuel pollution to thriving hubs of sustainable economic development and environmental protection. Shipping decarbonization will drive billions of dollars into clean energy infrastructure development and sustainable job creation while simultaneously improving the health of local communities through reduced air, water and land pollution.” Considering some 37% of the world's population lives within 100 km of the coast, these rewards will benefit literally billions of people.

And the rewards won’t stop there. According to the Aspen Institute, decarbonizing the shipping sector potentially offers several major co-benefits. One of these is reducing ocean noise pollution. The world’s commercial fleet of around 100,000 vessels generates a profound level of underwater noise, disrupting the ecosystems long-lived marine mammals like whales rely on. Marine animals can die within hours of encountering  extreme underwater noise. Producing ships that are quiet and environmentally sustainable will address climate change and biodiversity loss simultaneously. 

Decarbonizing shipping will also facilitate renewable energy growth. Future green shipping will require near emission-free fuels, meaning there must be no emissions resulting from the energy produced to make the fuel, through the supply chain, to when the fuel is used to power the ship. Ipso facto, as the shipping sector works to green its fuels it will help catalyze global momentum towards renewables such as solar and wind energy. 

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Before wrapping up this blog on World Maritime Day and the challenges facing the shipping industry, let's look at those ships on the horizon once more. As they sail towards a more sustainable and environmentally responsible future, we also have a role to play. Whether we're standing in the shallows at the beach or navigating the complexities of global shipping, whether we’re from Asia, Oceania, Africa, Europe or the Americas, the journey toward cleaner seas, quieter oceans and a healthier planet is a shared one. Admittedly, our agency in making the shipping sector clean up its act is limited, and all a blog such as this can do is promote awareness of the problem. Still, let's continue to paddle forward, knowing that our collective efforts at home, at work, and in our communities can help turn the tide towards a brighter, more sustainable maritime world. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now."  

Happy World Maritime Day!" 

Disclaimer: This guest blog was originally published by the author. The views expressed in this guest blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Independent Evaluation Unit of the Green Climate Fund.