The world’s largest container ship set sail last year. The gigantic Ever Ace, owned by Taiwanese
company Evergreen Marine, measures 1,312 feet in length and 206 feet wide. It can hold
23,992 20-foot shipping boxes. You can imagine the Empire State Building being flipped on its
side, moving at 25 mph per hour.
Moving such a large vehicle requires a huge power plant. A massive 11-cylinder, two-stroke
engine with 95,000 horsepower is required. Its piston stroke is nearly 12 feet. It runs on one of
the most polluting fuels on Earth, just like other cargo ships.
The stuff that powers huge ships is known as bunker fuel, or heavy oil. To make it flow, it must
be heated to 104°F. It produces noxious chemicals in its exhaust. According to the International
Council on Clean Transportation, pollution from shipping causes about 60,000 premature death.
Container ships are particularly thirsty. The largest vessels use more than 66 gallons per
Heavy fuel oil, however, is inexpensive and readily available. This combination presents a huge
challenge to shippers as well as the climate. The shipping industry contributes about 3 percent
to global greenhouse gas emissions. This is similar to aviation’s total emissions. Shipping would
be ranked sixth globally if it were its country for its contribution to climate change.
The global demand for shipping is increasing, and if it doesn’t get cleaned up, the damage to the
environment will increase. The International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency
that regulates shipping, estimates that emissions could reach 130 percent of 2008 levels by
mid-century if they are not addressed. It’s not only the ships that cause climate change; it’s also
the sprawling ports where they operate, along with their trucks, tugboats, and generators.
Global average temperatures are increasing, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to stop
global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN group) reported that
global greenhouse gas emissions must fall by half by 2030 to prevent the planet from heating up
to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. The IMO’s target of reducing shipping
emissions by half by 2050, relative to 2008 levels, is slower. Even so, this target is becoming
more expensive. Martin Stopford, a shipping economist, estimated that the industry would need
to meet this goal if it was to reach $3.4 trillion.
Is it possible to increase the shipping industry worldwide and decrease its impact on climate?
Major shipping companies believe so. A few companies have set higher climate targets than
what regulators have required. Bryan Comer, the marine program leader at ICCT, stated that
delay is the norm in the industry. Only a few leaders have the resources to stay ahead of the
These companies aren’t content to trade credits or buy carbon offsets in order to reach their
targets. They want to completely decarbonize ships so that they have no impact on the
environment. This is a Brobdingnagian task that requires rapid development and deployment, at
a frenetic pace of new energy technologies all over the globe, including biofuels, powertrains
powered by hydrogen, methanol, or ammonia.
However, if you can reduce the carbon footprint of a container ship you can also decarbonize
any other heavy-duty vehicle. Shipping is a major part of the world’s economy. This means that
every sector will see lower emissions in its supply chains. All oceans will be affected by the
effort to clean up shipping, which will impact every port, industry, and business.
Why shippers are responding faster to climate change than regulators
The shipping lanes are the main arteries of the global economy. They are home to the vital
nutrients that all countries require. Container ships carry nearly 90 percent of the world’s cargo.
Last year, we learned how expensive it is to have one of these arteries blocked. This was
evident when the Ever Given container vessel ran aground at the Suez Canal. For every six
days that it was stuck, trade stopped worth $10 billion. The Covid-19 pandemic was a stark
example of how destructive it can be for international shipping to slow down and ports to
become jammed. Stockists are left with empty shelves. Businesses close. Prices rise.
However, most of this circulation takes place on the high seas where it is difficult to keep track
and see what vessels are polluting.
“This sector is not subject to public accountability or public awareness,” Dan Hubbell, Ocean
Conservancy campaign manager, said. It’s mostly out of sight, but out of mind.
Shipping companies admit that they are beginning to feel the pressure of decarbonizing.
Maersk, a Danish container shipping company, has more than 700 vessels. Maersk initially set a
goal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, Maersk decided earlier
this year to extend its deadline up to 2040. Maersk also plans to reduce its container emissions
by 50 percent by 2030. Maersk aims to reduce its emissions at terminals it manages by 70% by
These targets are much more ambitious than any government has ever sought, especially
considering that there are no zero- or low emission ships currently on the water. Jacob Sterling,
Maersk’s head of decarbonization innovation, said that it would be extremely challenging.
Sterling stated that although environmental restrictions on shipping may be weak at the
moment, they will likely increase in the future. A recent report from the Ocean Conservancy on
maritime fuels stated that the US has key trade routes which drive its economic prosperity.
However, they are all vulnerable to disruption by climate regulation if operators do not take
proactive steps to transition to this fuel type.
Shipping companies, like the huge container ships that they operate, are slow to change their
direction. Maersk is preparing for the future by anticipating any restrictions and starting to
Sterling stated, “If we don’t change that our business is in danger.”
Customers are also pressing companies to reduce their carbon emissions. More companies are
assessing the environmental impact of their supply chain, and they find that shipping is a
significant contributor. Sterling reports that Maersk employees also wanted the company to be
more concerned about climate change.
Maersk’s goals are however far beyond the technology. There is currently no way to transport a
container ship across the ocean without emitting greenhouse gasses. Sterling stated that when
we set our first goal in 2018, we didn’t really know how to accomplish it. Companies like Maersk
have found a way to get to zero after exploring all possible options.
What they are planning to do
The shipping industry is driven by the need to reduce costs. This includes being able to
transport more goods with less fuel. Many container ships already use fuel conservation
strategies such as slow steaming. This refers to when a ship sails slower than its rated cruise
speed. This makes it more efficient and allows for longer journeys. However, it also uses less
fuel to cover the same distance. A 19% reduction in speed could lead to a 10 percent decrease
in greenhouse gas emissions.
Another option is to scale. Container ships that can carry large numbers of containers are huge.
This is because more containers mean lower fuel costs and a smaller environmental footprint.
However, efficiency alone is not sufficient to reduce emissions when the overall demand for
goods and services is growing. Ships are also reaching their practical limit in terms of size.
Decarbonizing ships will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
There are several options for container ships. Many companies believe that their fleets will be
run on cleaner fuels, which are more in line with their current operations.
Some companies are moving to liquefied natural gas. The Jacques Saade is nearly as large as
the Ever Ace. It’s the largest LNG-powered ship. Natural gas is cleaner than oil and produces 20
percent less carbon dioxide. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. Natural gas can increase
greenhouse gas emissions by burning, and even more, if it leaks. Methane, which is the
predominant component of natural gas traps heat better than carbon dioxide.
One way to achieve true zero climate impact is to use Biofuels from plants. Burning plants does
not cause an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, as plants absorb carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere during their growth. Biofuels are able to match existing fuels in terms of chemical
structure. This is the main attraction. So biofuels can be used as drop-in substitutes for existing
fuels. This means that much of the global shipping fleet and infrastructure would not have to be
modified. They still cause air pollution. There may not be enough biofuels available to meet the
global demand for shipping fuels. This is 330,000,000 metric tons.
Maersk is especially bullish on green methanol which is a type of alcohol that burns cleaner
than existing fuels. It can be made by combining captured carbon dioxide with hydrogen from
water that is powered by renewable energy. Another method is biomass combustion. This
involves steam breaking down biomass into hydrogen and carbon components, which are then
reassembled to make methanol. Methanol, which is a biofuel that mimics fuel oil, emits carbon
dioxide when burned. However, the process does not add to the total carbon dioxide in the
This method has many advantages. Methanol has a much lower level of pollutants than heavy
fuel oil. Methanol is also a liquid so it can make use of most of the existing fuel hardware. The
ICCT states that 88 of the 100 top ports have the infrastructure to support methanol.
Sterling stated that methanol was the only solution that was ready and scalable right now.
Maersk plans to launch its first-powered ship in 2023. It will be a 172-meter-long “feeder”
capable of carrying 2,100 containers.
However, most methanol is still made from fossil fuels. Maersk has also begun to partner with
companies to make the green methanol that it needs.
Other companies, such as shipbuilder Samsung Heavy Industries or engine-maker Wartsila, are
exploring ammonia for clean shipping fuel. Companies can also make ammonia from renewable
energy. The only exception to water and air, ammonia can be made using renewable energy.
Ammonia does not emit carbon dioxide, unlike methanol. In addition to being able to burn in traditional internal combustion engines, ammonia can also be used to power fuel cells.
Samsung will soon be building its first ammonia-powered tanker ship with partners.