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Shipping industry is pressured to cut pollution caused by merchant fleet


With supply chains in disarray, the shipping industry is a technicolor mess. Huge container ships are stuck at ports waiting to be unloaded. And as they idle, those ships are creating pollution. An effort to fix this problem is not going well. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The shipping industry's contribution to globalization has been huge. About 90% of the world's trade is transported by sea. But the cost to the environment is enormous. Every year, those container ships plying the world's waterways spew about 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air, which is about three 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions. For many years, the emissions were just part of the cost of globalization.

SIMON BENNETT: Forgive the pun, but there's been a total sea change in the last three or four years.

NORTHAM: Simon Bennett is with the International Chamber of Shipping, a global trade association representing about 80% of the world's fleet. He says the shipping industry as a whole is committed to total decarbonization by 2050. Bennett says that's created an urgency among shipowners to meet that deadline.

BENNETT: And ultimately, for individual shipping companies, the issue will become existential because if you don't abide with the regulations, which are fairly strictly enforced globally, then, ultimately, your ship won't be able to trade.

NORTHAM: The key will be to use carbon neutral, or green, fuel. But that hasn't been developed yet, at least not on a commercial scale. And new ships are both expensive and still designed to run on oil. But Maersk, the world's largest shipping company, is taking a leap of faith. Morten Bo Christiansen is the head of decarbonization for the company.

MORTEN BO CHRISTIANSEN: The situation was that nobody was producing the green fuel because there were no green ships, and nobody built the green ships because there was no green fuel. So, you know, we had this chicken-and-egg-type situation. And then we decided to say, well, you know, somebody need to break that egg, and that's what we did.

NORTHAM: Maersk recently ordered eight enormous container ships worth more than a billion dollars that will run on sustainably produced methanol. It's reaching out to a multitude of companies to both develop the fuel and make enough of it to power the new Maersk ships. Christiansen says it'll take about 350,000 tons of green methanol a year to run the vessels.

CHRISTIANSEN: Right now, the biggest challenge, honestly, is to get the price down to a level where, you know, where the loss is manageable on our end because these fuels are more expensive. And our company has a fuel bill around $6 billion a year. So if you double or triple that, it's not trivial.

NORTHAM: Maersk says some of its biggest customers are willing to help shoulder the cost for a green solution to shipping. Dawny'all Heydari with Ship It Zero, an environmental coalition, says retail giants can have a role to play in decarbonizing the shipping industry.

DAWNY'ALL HEYDARI: If we can get these influential retail giants like Amazon, Ikea, Walmart and Target to make commitments to zero-emission shipping, that will send a market signal in that direction that other companies will follow.

NORTHAM: Those retail companies say they are willing to join in efforts to dramatically reduce or even end shipping emissions by 2040. Heydari says his group wants that to happen by the end of this decade.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we refer to Dawny'all Heydari by the pronoun “his.” Heydari uses the pronoun “her.”]


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: December 1, 2021 at 9:00 PM PST
In this report, we refer to Dawny'all Heydari by the pronoun "his." Heydari uses the pronoun "her."
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.