The Ever Given drama in the Suez Canal momentarily turned the world’s attention to container shipping. It will require a more sustained focus to address the dangers these crucial ships pose to the climate. Shipping accounts for 3% of the world’s carbon emissions. If it were a country, the sector would be the world’s sixth-largest emitter.
The International Maritime Organization has set a goal of reducing carbon emissions from ships to 50% below 2008 levels by 2050, and the Getting to Zero Coalition has brought together more than 150 companies and organizations across the maritime sector. Many shipping companies have adopted their own ambitious goals for their operations. Even so, decarbonizing shipping will be difficult, and its share of overall emissions will probably continue to rise for some years as other sectors reduce their carbon footprints more rapidly.
Cutting emissions is particularly challenging because of the long distances the ships travel and the massive cargo they carry. And because the energy density of bunker fuel is so great, cleaner alternative fuels are either much more expensive or would take up so much room on board as to be impractical. Bill Gates estimates that green alternatives to bunker fuel are currently 300% to 600% more expensive, and notes that the “best conventional container ships can carry 200 times more cargo than either of the two electric ships now in operation, and they can run routes that are 400 times longer.”