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Shipping and Climate Change: Where are we and which way forward?

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The greenhouse gas emissions of shipping are considerable. They would need to halve by 2050 for attaining the goal of keeping global warming within a 2°C pathway. Instead, they are set to rise substantially. The industry needs to act.
  • Current measures will mitigate ship emissions to some extent, mainly through better energy efficiency of ships.
  • Lower speeds, higher utilisation, better ship designs and alternative energy sources can further reduce ship emissions.
  • Sectoral and institutional complexities must be overcome to create impact. 
  • A target for shipping emissions, an action plan for implementation and a carbon tax for shipping, the receipts of which could feed into the Green Climate Fund are needed.

The facts

International shipping contributed to around 0.8 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions globally in 2012. This represented 2.2% of worldwide carbon emissions. Of these, 62% came from three sorts of ships: container ships, bulk carriers and tankers (2012 figures).

Since 1990, shipping emissions have doubled, despite a 10% decrease during the economic downturn between 2007 and 2012. The CO2 emissions from maritime transport in 2050 are projected to be between 50% and 250% higher than current levels, depending on how global trade increases in different scenarios. This would mean that shipping emissions in 2050 could represent up to 14% of the total global emissions. The main explanation for the increase of shipping emissions since 1990 is the increase in maritime trade. The main explanation for the decrease since 2007 is slow steaming.

The 2009 Copenhagen Agreement set out pathways for CO2 emission reductions needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C by 2100. These references are used in the national submissions to the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) to be held in Paris (France) in December 2015. If the shipping sector would apply a 2°C pathway, it would have to cut CO2 emissions from its ships to 0.4 billion tonnes by 2050 and achieve zero carbon emissions by 2080.

Shipping emissions are regulated by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a special agency of the United Nations. The 1997 Kyoto agreement gave responsibility to take measures in this area to IMO. The main measures taken by the IMO include regulations on ship design which will increase the energy efficiency of ships. These regulations are known under the acronyms EEDI (Energy Efficiency Design Index) and SEEMP (Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan).

Although these measures certainly will have an effect in moderating the growth of shipping emissions, their full implementation will not be enough to halt the growth of, let alone reduce, shipping emissions in the future.


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