Industry News

It’s Not Easy, Being Green:
The Long Road Ahead to Reduce the Shipping Industry’s Carbon Footprint


Let’s start with some stats:

  • There are around 60,000 ships in the ocean today
  • About 90% of world trade is transported by ships
  • 3% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are caused by ships

The common denominator is obvious here. The shipping industry is facing a reckoning from global governments and customers to clean up their act. Until recently, the shipping industry has been left largely unchecked, environmentally speaking, and wasn’t even included in the groundbreaking Paris Climate Accords or covered by any UN climate treaties. There is something to be said about maritime law, its complexities, and how that may prevent stricter environmental measures. That said, with the public spotlight on the global supply chain crisis, the conversation is now shifting to how dirty global shipping really is.

Nearly all cargo ships use diesel combustion engines and generators to keep them in operation. In fact, some even use “bunker” fuel, which is made from leftover sediment during the refining process and contains harmful chemicals including sulfur. Don’t believe that it’s that bad? Ask residents living alongside Long Beach currently. With the exponential increase in container ships parked off their coastline, some people are calling areas of west Long Beach the “diesel death zone” or “black alley”. According to the Long Beach Post, resident Theral Golden, 73, says the area is sometimes blanketed in a thick haze and he hasn’t ever seen smog as bad as this.

The U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) began on Sunday in Glasgow, which brought together CEOs from the world’s biggest shipping companies to discuss decarbonization. This is in the wake of companies including Unilever, IKEA, and Amazon stating that they want their products on zero-carbon ships by 2040—the International Maritime Organization has set a deadline of 2050 for companies to cut emissions.

Obviously, shippers can’t just flip a switch and change the industry, but we can change course over time by implementing new technologies. For instance, Yara International has unveiled the world’s first autonomous electric cargo ship, Maersk is betting on bio-methanol to turn America’s farm waste into clean fuel, and Michelin is even experimenting with giant inflatable sails that can reduce fuel consumption by 20%.

As refreshing as these endeavors may seem (especially to those living in Long Beach), shipping companies are still, well, companies and need to meet their bottom line. That said, they also need to consider social responsibility as it relates to their overall brand. Only time will tell if enforcement will lead the charge or if sustainable technology will become reasonable enough to implement. Regardless, the climate crisis here and the shipping industry needs to get onboard.