Shipping Emissions Are Black Friday’s Dirty Secret

Container ships in a port in Hamburg, Germany.
Container ships in a port in Hamburg, Germany.

It may be tempting to load up on online shopping deals this Black Friday—but before you order a whole new wardrobe or electronics setup, take a moment to think about the trip all those packages may take. International shipping to bring all that stuff to your door is responsible for almost 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And as the world’s online shopping addiction grows bigger and bigger, the problem only gets worse: global shipping emissions could become 17% of the world’s total emissions by 2050 as trade expands.

Earther sat down with Madeline Rose, the Climate Campaign Director of Pacific Environment, a nonprofit that works to clean up the shipping industry, to talk about how we got here and where we’re going in terms of decarbonizing international trade’s dirtiest secret.

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Molly Taft, Earther: How does international shipping factor in when we’re talking about emissions and climate change?

Madeline Rose, Pacific Environment: Fundamentally, every single thing that you buy, every single package that arrives at your door—almost every single one of those at some point came to the United States on a large ocean cargo ship. They’re just humongous, like 100 times the size of the engine of a car. These massive cargo ships are shipping almost every major product to our doors and our stores. And currently, every single ocean-going vessel ship on the water today runs on fossil fuel.

Earther: Why is that? Maybe that’s an obvious question, but we’re cleaning up cars, buses, trains—have we just not figured out the right fix for ships?

Rose: Yeah, so kind of a nerdy way to look at this is the way that diesel engines have been designed throughout the industrial revolution is that, basically, engine design starts with trucks, and it goes to trains, and then it goes to ships. When the industrial revolution accelerated, and shipping companies were being asked to move more goods across the oceans, in line with commercialization and globalization, companies realized that you could run a diesel engine on what’s called heavy fuel oil. That’s a super bottom-of-the-barrel oil—it’s excess crude oil, oil that can be used in a heavy industrial engine for ships. It’s a super, super cheap way for oil companies to use what they otherwise would throw away. They figured out that they could run these in large scale ship engines, and that is what shipping companies have been running on for the bulk of the last 50 years.

Earther: Sounds like it was a win-win for both the oil companies and the shipping companies to figure out cheap fossil fuels for ships.

Rose: Yeah. You know, the container industry is only 30 years old. So there was a way for shipping companies to make the case for even more global trade and oil companies to find new lifeline clients.

Earther: Can you talk a little bit about what the technology to decarbonize this industry might look like?

Rose: I think what’s promising here is that, just like cars and trucks and rail, we can decarbonize ships. The engine technology is fundamentally the same. Just like how we’re seeing a lot of momentum around the world now for a demand for zero emission trucks and zero emission locomotives or rail, we can achieve zero emission ships.

In terms of the solutions that we’re seeing, [some of it] is going to be battery propulsion—zero emission electric power for small trips like ferries and boats like tugboats. A lot of those small harbor vessels and transport vessels can be electrified. For everything that can’t be electrified, we’re seeing a hybrid solution with some batteries, some wind assist, some energy efficiency improvements, and then green hydrogen based fuels as a fuel switch.

Earther: Where’s the state of the technology right now? If we know how to do this, why isn’t it being done?

Rose: The shipping industry has essentially gotten away with no regulation and no rules for several decades. We believe that this transition is not nearly as hard as they’re making it out to be. Fundamentally, this is an oil and gas pipeline industry, and oil and gas companies and shipping companies have been intentionally delaying climate regulation.

That said, ships are expensive. This isn’t a passenger car—you’re building million dollar asset. So the transitions are really expensive, but the technology is there. The technology does exist—we are seeing hydrogen fuel cell ferries on the water all around the world, solar powered ferries on the water all around the world. And we expect the first carbon neutral and zero carbon cargo ships to be on the water as early as 2024.

Earther: I’m curious about the hydrogen component here—there’s been a lot of criticism about the explosion of hydrogen fuel over electrification for stuff like cars and trucks.

Rose: A legitimately green hydrogen economy needs to be discerning about what offtakers it will use. What we’re seeing is that ocean shipping, steel, fertilizer, aviation, are perhaps the only industries where we’re really going to need legitimate electrolytic green hydrogen for decarbonization, because electrification is impossible to displace fossil fuels in those sectors. Governments and other stakeholders need to be really responsible about not allowing partake in for example cars and trucks, versus these other industries that can’t be electrified.

Maersk, the second largest shipping company in the world, they just announced that 25% of their entire fleet will rely on green fuels by 2030. And they’ve essentially locked in MOUs at a coalition of major ports around the world to supply them with green hydrogen. They’re not gonna be zero emission, but they are carbon neutral, and we think it’s a promising start.

Earther: Why has the industry been so far behind in terms of getting up to speed with with decarbonization?

Rose: It’s a combination of factors. One, this is not a science issue, right. I think because of COVID and COVID-related supply chain crisis that we all saw with historic backlogs at ports, you finally do have the public paying more attention, and realizing that every click you make on Amazon creates pollution in America for communities and that people are really suffering. I do think that awareness is now up, for good reason.

And unregulated fossil fueled shipping is causing environmental injustice and environmental racism in some of the most heavily industrialized parts of not just the US but of the world. The global shipping industry may only account for roughly 3% of climate emissions, but historically has accounted for 15% of the world’s nitrous oxide emissions, and 18% of the world’s sulfur emissions. There are these humongous vessels that have really polluted poor communities in LA and Long Beach where we do a lot of work. Port-adjacent communities have an eight year lower life expectancy than the LA county average. California and the US federal government right now claim to care deeply about righting the harms of the fossil fuel era—ending ship pollution would be a win-win for climate and for environmental justice, and for the clean energy transition.

But fundamentally, policymakers have not taken responsibility for this issue. It’s not just out of sight, out of mind to the public, but it’s out of sight, out of mind to policymakers. There’s a lot of finger pointing and lack of governments really taking ownership over the emissions that are caused as a result of their economic activity. For example, in the United States, the EPA has not regulated on ships since 2009. We’re really calling on Administrator Reagan in the US EPA, as well as the new mayor-elect of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, as well as the Newsom administration in California to take responsibility for these emissions. There’s just been this multi-decade sense that, you know, oh, it’s on the high seas, it’s out of sight, out of mind. This industry really hasn’t been put under any mandatory regulations akin to cars, trucks—even scooters.

Earther: It makes sense that it’s easy to deflect blame—ships are on the ocean, they’re going through international waters, so it just sounds like everyone’s like, oh, it’s not our problem.

Rose: Exactly. They’re like, the IMO [International Maritime Organization] and the UN will fix it. But the IMO is quite corporate captured. There are just some geopolitical stalemates around shipping that they have not so far been able to get through. And so we have a crisis. Ship pollution and pollution increased 5% last year—it’s going the wrong direction. We need policymakers to take responsibility.

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