Wildfires, floods, rising sea levels, war, and societal breakdown: such scenes have recently been hitting our headlines, and we have all felt the effects in one way or another. However, there are solutions to change this narrative and make the future of the planet and humankind a brighter one.

Greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts are increasing, and plans for decarbonisation are still unclear. Seas At Risk recently published a report highlighting the shipping industry’s environmental negligence. This report calls the shipping industry out on a long list of issues that shows it poses a serious threat to ocean health and is a major contributor to the climate and environmental crisis. Another recent analysis shows that shipping emissions are continuing to grow and last year rose above their pre-pandemic levels, with potentially terrifying consequences for the climate. However, for the most part business-as-usual persists, with the bulk of the shipping industry reluctant to make the necessary changes.

This summer, the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO), agreed a ground-breaking new level of climate ambition for the sector, including unprecedented absolute emission reduction targets for 2030 (30%) and 2040 (80%), and full decarbonisation by 2050. While very welcome these new targets are still not ambitious enough for us to stand a good chance of keeping planetary heating below the critical 1.5C limit. We need more ambition and further action from all stakeholders and especially the IMO to make these emission reductions a reality and to keep heating within safe limits for civilisation.

The good news is that we already have the knowledge and technical know-how to meet these ambitious short-term targets and start the path to decarbonisation. Through wind-assisted ships, slowing ships down by 20-30%, and using zero-greenhouse gas fuels such as electricity, we can achieve a dramatic and affordable decrease in emissions before 2030. And whilst these are being implemented, an infrastructure for renewable fuels can be built which will allow for a true zero carbon emission goal by 2050.

The IPCC report shows that maritime supply chains and ports are vulnerable to climate and environmental change. Natural disasters and geopolitical events affect supply chains, which are then forced to adapt. A recent study from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute estimates that more than $122bn of economic activity including $81bn in international trade is at risk from the impact of extreme climate events per year.  As just one example of how supply chains can suffer, the COVID pandemic saw huge disruptions in the transportation of goods (think back to the widespread panic buying of toilet paper!).

As part of damage control, in some places companies have now started to transfer all or part of their operations to a nearby country or even back to the company’s original country. This simplifies the supply chain and could help in the struggle to decarbonise shipping as production and consumption becomes more localised.

Decarbonisation and dematerialisation also look likely to result in a fall in the need for shipping services.  Fossil fuels are currently shipped on a significant scale, but if there is a decrease in demand for these materials and a higher demand for fuels produced from renewable energy, the volume shipped may well decrease, leading to the need for fewer cargo ships.

With all this in mind, it is evident that the shipping industry needs to adapt and fall in line with the changing times. Slowing down ships, using wind-assisted technologies, the use of electric power, and optimising supply chains will take us a very long way and can be achieved through collaboration between different sectors, stakeholders and using their skills sets to problem solve. It is time shipping thinks outside their carbon-emitting box if they are to enable one planet living.

The ecological transition is challenging and can feel daunting, but what seems clear to us is that we need to think of collaboration as the fuel of the future with communication as the grease!