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Why Global Shipping Industry Must Climb Aboard Paris Climate Pact

Latin American states, as major sea-trading nations that are also vulnerable to climate change, must act now to find ways to curb shipping pollution.

Sailing to Rio, Brazil
Sailing to Rio, Brazil
José Manuel Figueres*

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES The boom in renewable energy is creating economic opportunities for countries across the world — now, it must also be extended to our oceans.

Shipping is the last major global industry that needs to be brought into the fold on energy transition. If it were a country, its greenhouse gas emissions would be comparable to Germany's and the sixth highest in the world. But in contrast with Germany, sea transportation remains outside the Paris Accords and its emissions may keep rising for decades.

We currently have the option of fighting some of the easier battles, like publishing efficiency data for ships in the market, to help channel private investment toward more efficient vessels. That would save billions of dollars in fuel costs each year and substantially cut the sector's emissions.

Speed limits are another simple way for the sector to curb pollution, and again, save billions in fuel costs. Similarly, decarbonization through greater use of new, wind-power technologies could bring major benefits.

Adopting these practices would require regulatory action and new financial mechanisms, especially for developing countries.

Battery technology is advancing in areas like short circuits and internal navigation, but decarbonizing the entire maritime fleet would require massive investment in low-emission or zero-emission fuels like hydrogen, ammonia, and biofuels.

Adopting these practices would require regulatory action and new financial mechanisms, especially for developing countries.

When an industry spends more than $100 billion a year on fuel, even a 1% tax on petrol purchases could generate substantial funds for research on renewable propulsion technologies while keeping the money inside the sector. Many shipowners would welcome the availability of a massive fund for clean energy innovation, while it could also provide compensations for developing countries hard-pressed to meet the costs of energy transition.

Photo: Andres Perez Moreno/ZUMA

These are countries that need greater access to clean shipping technology. In Latin America, wind and solar energy are growing at a remarkable rate, so why not use some of the excess energy generated to produce hydrogen for ships or charge grid batteries? Why not use existing hydroelectric energy to produce ammonia-based fuels?

The French firm Engie is considering investing in hydrogen production where solar energy is cheapest, and one of the places it has cited is the Atacama desert in Chile, where the company could produce hydrogen on an industrial scale.

Brazil has competitive advantages in biofuels that could help national ethanol producers currently facing difficult times, by expanding the market into marine fuels.

As businesses, shipping firms' decisions on the type of fuel they must use must make financial sense. The price of renewable fuels like hydrogen ultimately depends on the price of the electricity used to produce it, and that is plummeting worldwide — and especially in Latin American markets where renewable energy is potentially abundant.

This requires them to act in unison.

In shipping like other industries, it would be imprudent to base business models on the belief that fossil fuels will remain the cheapest fuel option forever. Many carbon companies have already learned this the hard way, through bankruptcy. As ships tend to last 25 years or so before being scrapped, shipbuilders must now take climate change into account.

Latin American states are both united in their deep dependence on maritime trade and their exposure to the dangers of climate change. This requires them to act in unison. We need to show the same leadership talking about this issue as the Marshall Islands and other Pacific nations, and push just one shipping objective in line with the Paris accords: a 70-100% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2050.

The only way to do this is through a secure regulatory framework that becomes an incentive to decarbonize the merchant fleet. This month's Marine Environment Protection Committee's meeting in London was a good opportunity to find this common strategy.

I would urge all Latin American nations to act together to send shipping on the sustainable route, for anything less is to jeopardize the Paris climate accord and the health and sustenance of our citizens.

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