• Cargo ships now have a net-zero goal — but critics say it's not enough
  • Newsletter
  • Donate
Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Cargo ships now have a net-zero goal — but critics say it’s not enough

The U.N.’s IMO set new climate goals for the dirty ships that power the global economy. But they don’t align with the 1.5-degree pathway some nations pushed for.
By Maria Gallucci

  • Link copied to clipboard
A flaming device is pointed at a puppet oil tanker
Ocean Rebellion protesters target the International Maritime Organization's meeting in central London with a 4-foot puppet oil tanker belching smoke from its chimneys and a flaming oil drum. (Victoria Jones/PA Images/Getty Images)

For the past week in London, the United Nations agency that governs global shipping has been meeting behind closed doors to negotiate a climate strategy for ocean-crossing cargo vessels — the diesel-guzzling behemoths that haul virtually everything we buy and use. Meanwhile, outside the regulator’s headquarters, climate activists wearing mermaid tails and hoisting smoke-spewing ship puppets urged delegates to set their ambitions high.

On Friday, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) set new, stricter emissions-reduction targets that critics say still don’t go far enough to curb the shipping industry’s rising contribution to climate change. Absent stringent global rules, the onus now falls more squarely on individual nations, regions, ports and shipping companies to enact efforts to clean up dirty freighters and tankers, according to observers.

This week’s climate talks were reminiscent of rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship,” Faïg Abbasov, shipping programme director for Transport & Environment in Brussels, said in a statement. The IMO had the opportunity to set an unambiguous and clear course toward the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature goal, but all it came up with is a wishy-washy compromise.”

International shipping is responsible for about 3 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, and its climate pollution is projected to soar in the coming decades if nothing changes. Tens of thousands of merchant ships burn polluting fossil fuels every year to haul some 11 billion tons of goods — a vast category that includes everything from live sheep, frozen peas and giant plastic bags of wine to clean-energy staples such as solar panels, wind-turbine blades and lithium-ion batteries.

The IMO’s 175 member countries agreed to set near-term targets for reducing cargo-shipping emissions by at least 20 percent — striving for 30 percent — by 2030, compared to 2008 levels. The strategy also calls for curbing emissions by at least 70 percent — striving for 80 percent — by 2040, reaching net-zero emissions by or around” 2050 while still taking into account different national circumstances.”

Countries also agreed to have 5 to 10 percent of shipping’s energy use come from zero or near-zero” emissions fuels and technologies by 2030.

A group of people sit behind rows of desks facing a front stage
Delegates from the IMO's 175 member countries join the MEPC80's opening plenary on July 3, 2023. (IMO)

The climate strategy, which isn’t legally binding, opens a new chapter towards maritime decarbonization,” IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said on Friday in a statement.

At the same time, it is not the end goal,” he added. It is in many ways a starting point for the work that needs to intensify even more over the years and decades ahead of us.”

The outcome reflects a hard-fought agreement between two broad factions within the maritime organization: those who wanted more aggressive goals and those pushing for clunkily worded caveats.

The first group was led by the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu, two Pacific Island nations at risk of disappearing in a warming world. Delegates sought to set targets in line with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, calling for achieving net-zero emissions by 2040, a decade earlier than the plan adopted Friday. Net zero” means shipping companies would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible, then offset or remove their remaining emissions from the atmosphere.

The other countries in this camp, including Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, had also hoped for a goal of absolute-zero” emissions by 2050, meaning cargo ships would run on entirely carbon-free sources with no offsetting needed. Proponents say more stringent regulations are needed to jump-start massive and globe-spanning investments in zero-emissions marine fuels and technologies, hardly any of which is available today.

Albon Ishoda, the Marshall Islands’ special envoy for shipping decarbonization, told journalists that the science already told us [that] anything less than 36 percent by 2030 and 96 percent by 2040 will be detrimental” to limiting global warming to 1.5°C and that it will have a devastating impact,” Climate Home News reported.

The Marshall Islands has long spearheaded the charge for climate action within the IMO. The sprawling island chain relies heavily on freighters, not only for importing food, medicine and other essentials but also for generating income — some 13 percent of the world’s merchant ships pay to fly the Marshallese flag. At the same time, the low-lying archipelago of 81,000 people is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and severe drought made worse by climate change.

Activists hold up a sign reading 50 percent, down arrow, by 2030 equals 1.5 degrees Celsius
Activists with the grassroots art collective Ocean Rebellion demonstrate outside the IMO's headquarters in London. (Gareth Morris/Ocean Rebellion)

The second camp at this week’s negotiations included China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Argentina and other large, export-dependent countries. These delegates pushed for fuzzier deadlines and the nod to national circumstances, warning that more stringent rules would hurt their economies by making it more expensive to send commodities such as food, metals and crude oil by ships.

In a diplomatic note sent to developing countries, Chinese officials said that developed countries are pushing the IMO to reach unrealistic visions and levels of ambition,” referring to the absolute-zero 2050 target, Reuters reported. China is home to seven of the world’s top 10 biggest container ports, and last year the country exported $3.7 trillion in goods and services, or 12 percent of the global total.

Environmental groups expressed deep disappointment with Friday’s results. Still, the new cargo-shipping goals are at the very least stronger than the IMO’s initial climate strategy. In 2018, the organization called for reducing annual shipping emissions by at least 50 percent by 2050, while also working toward full decarbonization of the sector as soon as possible within this century.”

We are grateful for the immensely hard work of the Pacific Island nations and other ambitious member states to secure the best possible outcome in what were extremely intense rounds of negotiations,” Ana Laranjeira, shipping manager of the nonprofit Opportunity Green, said in a statement.

Every fraction of a degree is of crucial importance,” she added, and we need to continue to work to decarbonize international shipping in a just and equitable manner as soon as possible.”

Bryan Comer of the International Council on Clean Transportation noted that what follows for the IMO will be even more consequential when it comes to curbing shipping-related emissions. In the coming years, delegates will hash out mandatory, enforceable rules meant to set the emissions-reduction goals in motion and shift the industry toward cleaner alternatives.

Ultimately, it’s the measures the organization takes to implement the strategy, such as GHG-intensity standards for ships and fuels, as well as economic measures, that will determine how much international shipping contributes to future warming,” he said.

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.