World’s largest container shipping company pledges carbon neutrality by 2050

Despite being one of the most carbon-efficient means of global transport, marine shipping still accounts for 2/3 percent of the global greenhouse emissions. The industry’s big players want to change that.

Credit: Robert Lender (Flickr)

The sector wasn’t included in the Paris Agreement but has set its own goal to cut emissions by 50% by 2050. Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, took the ambition a step further and vowed to be carbon neutral by 2050, sending goods with zero carbon emissions. This will mean developing new technology and compete with companies that aren’t bearing that burden.

The shipping firm now has 750 vessels in operation, some of which are hundreds of meters long. Maersk has already cut emissions substantially, spending US$1 billion so far in efficiency improvements — aiming at the intermediate goal of cutting emissions by 60% by 2030.

“The only possible way to achieve the so-much-needed decarbonisation in our industry is by fully transforming to new carbon neutral fuels and supply chains,” says Søren Toft, Chief Operating Officer at Maersk. “The next 5-10 years are going to be crucial. We will invest significant resources for innovation and fleet technology.”

It may seem like a long time before 2050 hits, but Maersk needs to plan ahead very carefully. Ships are manufactured to last 20 to 30 years, which means ships in service in 2050 will become operational in a few years. New technology will also mean developing a new supply chain to fuel the ships.

Maersk’s plan is based on three pillars: customers, cost reduction and regulations. The company is already working on a carbon-neutral option by using biofuels, selling the option to clients such as H&M. The Swedish clothing firm wants to be carbon neutral by 2040 so reducing its emissions through shipping is one way to go.

As part of its climate-friendly plan, Maersk is also focusing on reducing the amount of money spent on alternatives to fossil fuels. Ships now rely on fuel oil or liquefied natural gas and zero-carbon options like biofuels don’t work yet at the scale needed for container ships

“We want to accelerate the development of solutions of getting there and not just sitting on the fence and waiting for somebody [to do] something,” Ole Graa Jakobsen, Maersk’s head of fleet technology, said

Cleaner technologies that are needed to lower emissions haven’t been invented yet, which makes Maersk’s goals difficult to meet. The company is expecting for technology development to accelerate and to meet its target on a “business-viable” way.

At the same time, Maersk expects there will soon be stricter regulations on shipping emissions such as carbon pricing. If this actually happens, the company will be in a better position than its competitors which have less ambitious environmental targets in place.

But given the current state of affairs regarding climate action regulation, there’s no guarantee that rules on shipping will get tougher. Companies signed a climate agreement under the International Maritime Organization but there’s no system to enforce the commitments, so it’s all in the air so far.

Maersk has so far reduced relative CO2 emissions by 46%, which is about nine percent more than the industry average. There’s still a long way to go until carbon neutrality and achieving it will not only depend on the company but also on factors outside its control. In the meantime, we can only hope that Maersk’s plan will move ahead as planned.

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