This week at the United Nations climate summit in Poland, as world leaders called on each other to pledge more ambitious climate action, the Danish shipping giant AP Moller Maersk took the opportunity to announce its own climate target: net-zero emissions by 2050.
Mid-century may sound far away, but it's a more ambitious climate target than what most other industry players are offering. It's also miles ahead of the rest of the shipping sector, which Tzeporah Berman, the international program director of the environmental group Stand.Earth, says has long shown a "reticence to be regulated." Though shipping emissions are tied to some 400,000 premature global deaths a year, and millions of cases of asthma, the sector was infamously left out of the Paris Agreement in 2015. While the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations body charged with regulating the industry, has imposed strict emissions limits on some pollutants like sulfur, some of the agency's member states have successfully delayed rules that would limit other emissions or ban heavy fuel oil—a fuel that is "so dirty that on land it's classified as hazardous waste," according to Berman.
Only this year did the IMO set strict greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. In April, IMO member states agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050—a target that climate advocates noted was nowhere near in line with the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
But in a side event late Wednesday evening at COP24, Edmund Hughes, the head of air pollution and energy efficiency at the IMO, said the policy had "sent a clear signal out into the market and the industry where we're going in the future, and that is the decarbonization of the sector," pointing to Maersk's commitment as an example of [the IMO targets'] success so far.
"The shipping industry is at the beginning of the biggest technological transformation in the last 100 years," says James Corbett, a professor at the University of Delaware’s School of Marine Science & Policy, on a scale not seen since the sector moved from wind-powered vessels to engine-powered ones.
"It's also the first time in 100 years that the shipping industry is embracing being part of the solution to environmental stewardship," Corbett adds. "They required some convincing that they were contributing enough [to climate change] to matter. In the last 10 years, the industry has recognized that it needs to have a role."
But for now, Maersk still has a long way to go. The largest container shipping company in the world, Maersk still emits something like 36 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to estimates from Hughes. And the company wants to get to net-zero emissions in just three short decades without using carbon offsets. Maersk's chief operating officer Soren Toft told the Financial Times that using carbon offsets was just "delaying the pain."
"What you are doing is buying yourself an excuse and hoping that the money you pay goes to good uses," he said, "but you are not tackling the issue at its core."
So how will the company get there? First, by taking full advantage of existing technologies.
"Onto 2030, there is still quite a lot to be harvested from an efficiency point of view," says John Kornerup Bang, head of sustainability strategy at Maersk. "We are aiming at reaching a 60 percent efficiency improvement compared to 2008."
There are plenty of ways for the industry at large to increase fuel efficiency, from simple changes like optimizing routes and reducing speeds, to technological ones like wind-assist systems or air cavitation—micro-bubbles along the hull of the ship, which, according to Hughes, can reduce fuel consumption by 3 to 5 percent, a not insignificant amount when you're using several thousand tons of fuel a year.
Of course, the shipping industry is not a monoculture, and what works for a fast-moving container ship might not work for a tanker ship or a cruise ship. And for Maersk, optimizing efficiency will only go so far. "Given the growth in global trade, that will only keep our emissions flat, it won’t reduce our emissions," Bang says. The company needs new and emerging technologies to make it all the way to zero—and soon, because most ships have average lifespans of 20 to 25 years. "In order to be able to decarbonize in 2050, we need to be able to put out a zero-carbon vessel that is commercially viable by 2030," he says.
But Maersk still has no idea what that vessel will look like, which is why the company made the announcement now. "We need to stimulate the development," Bang says. "We need a breakthrough. Time is of the essence."
Maersk is looking at everything from alternative fuels like hydrogen and ammonia to electricity to hybrids, according to Bang. It's too early to pick a winner, or rule anything out, he says.
"That's exactly the right kind of attitude for the leaders of industry to be taking in this decade," Corbett says. "If we're going to meet the targets, we need to have a lot of experimentation."
Maersk is not the only shipping company looking into decarbonization, but with nearly a 20 percent share of the container shipping market, its efforts could quickly help put a dent in the industry's emissions as whole, which amount to roughly 3 percent of global emissions, in both direct and indirect ways. "The potential impact really lies in the fact that, in collaboration with technology providers, we're pushing this technological development," Bang says. "That's going to accelerate the point that the technology is available to the wider-ranging parts of the shipping sector."
When the time comes, the IMO could accelerate that transition further with phase-out rules, according to Corbett, like the ones that required tanker ships to switch from single hulls to double hulls, which went into effect in 2001 to help prevent catastrophic oil and chemical spills.
Of course, that's all dependent on what Maersk and the technology sector deliver in the end. And not everyone is optimistic.
"We heard a similar aviation pledge from International Air Transport Association just before the Copenhagen COP in 2009," says Bill Hemmings, an aviation and shipping policy specialist at the environmental organization Transport & Environment, "and we are still waiting for concrete details about how to deliver."