Can the Shipping Industry Achieve Carbon Zero?

By Jane Marsh

Discussions surrounding the topic of climate change have increased dramatically as temperatures rise, droughts last longer, glaciers melt faster and tropical storms hit harder.

Global industries face mounting pressure to adopt sustainable business practices to reach net-zero carbon emissions. While many companies are making progress, others are lagging.

The shipping industry contributes to global warming and climate change. Here’s a look at the state of the sector today and if it could achieve net-zero emissions in the next couple of decades.

The Shipping Industry: Major Source of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions

Several methods of transportation are the backbone of the shipping industry. Planes, cars, trucks, ships and trains use massive amounts of petroleum-based fuel, like gasoline and diesel, to travel worldwide and transport goods.

Burning these fossil fuels generates GHG emissions, contributing to the greenhouse effect and causing climate change. The transportation sector alone accounted for 27% of GHG emissions worldwide in 2020, the largest share of all sources.

The maritime industry is responsible for transporting over 80% of the volume of international trade goods by sea. It could be more in developing countries, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Aside from standard shipping operations, other activities in the industry contribute to high levels of emissions. For example, fleet repairs can negatively impact the environment. Ships that travel close to shore can affect marine populations on the coast.

The shipping industry makes major contributions to the overall amount of global emissions, so companies must focus on sustainability initiatives to reduce them. The ultimate goal is to reach net zero, but is it possible?

Can the Shipping Industry Achieve Carbon Zero? A busy sea port at night in timelapse
Lot of cargo freight containers in the Hong Kong sea port
Photo by Timelab Pro on Unsplash

How Shipping Is Becoming More Sustainable

What are some of the main sustainability trends happening in shipping right now? What steps are companies taking to achieve reductions in carbon emissions?

Shore-to-Ship Power

One measure the industry is encouraging companies to utilize is shore-to-ship power, also referred to as alternative marine power (AMP) and cold-ironing. Instead of fleets relying on diesel generators, which are major sources of pollution, they can use electric power as a viable substitute.

AMP allows ships to plug into the electric grid on shore. Companies will reduce their local and overall emissions as the grid becomes greener due to renewable energy sources. Additionally, the air quality around ports improves when ships use AMP.

Electric Fleets

Electric vehicles are paving the way for greener, more sustainable transportation in the automotive industry. EVs produce significantly fewer emissions than conventional, gas-powered cars, and the same goes for ships in the shipping and logistics industry.

The industry will likely introduce partly or fully electric fleets to reduce carbon, sulfur oxide (SOx) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. Companies will come closer to reaching net zero but also benefit from cost-efficiency improvements because electricity is significantly cheaper than marine fuel.

Low-Carbon Fuel Alternatives

The shipping industry is also exploring low-carbon alternative fuel sources to reduce emissions. For example, liquid natural gas (LNC), methanol, hydrogen and solar panels are possible alternatives.

Cost plays a significant role in using alternative fuels, but it’s not the only factor companies must consider. One alternative, green ammonia, is one of the cheapest available. Still, other more affordable options will emerge and likely dominate the market.

Can the Shipping Industry Achieve Carbon Zero? A large freight vessel out at sea at dawn
The bulk freighter, Federal Beaufort, leaves the St. Clair River and heads out into Lake Huron.
Photo by Chris Pagan on Unsplash

Working Toward a Net-Zero Future

It’s uncertain whether or not the shipping industry will reach net-zero emissions. It’s easy to say the industry is trying its best to minimize emissions and its overall carbon footprint, but much more work must be done.

Aside from emissions, marine pollution, overfishing, acoustic and solid waste, and maritime disasters are other industry concerns that must be addressed.

Reducing net-zero emissions will require a lot of effort from different organizations, which could present new challenges and make it harder to reach this goal. Industry players will have to take the initiative and implement widespread changes to reduce pollution and create a more sustainable future for the shipping industry.

Author Bio:

Jane works as the founder and editor-in-chief of where she covers environmental news and sustainable living tips.