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Report: Shipping emissions rose nearly 5% in 2021

Increase an ‘inconvenient truth’ during drive to reduce carbon intensity worldwide

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Shipping-related greenhouse gas emissions rose by 4.9% in 2021 and were higher than in 2020 and 2019, according to Simpson Spence & Young’s annual industry report

Shipping emissions came in at 833 million metric tons of carbon in 2021, compared with 794 million metric tons in 2020 and 800 million metric tons in 2019. 

This rise in emissions comes despite growing climate ambitions and efforts to reduce emissions in the maritime industry. Shippers are experimenting with alternative fuels and striving to comply with increasingly stringent emissions regulations and pricing. But the industry saw massive increases in demand for consumer goods after the initial shock of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

“The key driver was the recovering 2021 world economy where demand for durable goods has remained firm while services demand has increased. Added to this is a trend towards longer ton-mile trade, higher steaming speeds in some segments and increased port congestion,” the report said.

It called the increase in emissions an “inconvenient truth” for the International Maritime Organization, which has aimed for a carbon intensity reduction of 40% by 2030. The IMO’s current 2050 target is set at a 50% reduction in maritime emissions compared to 2008 GHG emissions. The organization has yet to set a net-zero emissions target by 2050.

“We should all expect headlines such as this one until there is a better alignment between economic and environmental incentives for shippers and fleet operators. The tension that exists between growth and efficiency is necessary for a healthy, functioning market. Until market participants internalize the cost of emissions, freight buyers will continue to rely on time-trusted levers of cost and service,” said Tyler Cole, director of carbon intelligence at FreightWaves.

Promising maritime decarbonization efforts

The COP26 climate conference in November set the stage for rapid climate action in several sectors, including shipping. More than 20 nations signed on to the Clydebank Declaration to establish six green shipping corridors by 2025.

Read: Green shipping corridors to come out of COP26

In addition to COP26 and the potential for green shipping corridors, countless nations, organizations, campaigns and companies have set sustainability and emission-reduction targets. They vary in terms of time frame and favored solutions. 

There are experts and environmentalists who say that some sustainability goals are not ambitious, specific or fast enough to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and adhere to the Paris agreement.

“COP26 served as a platform for maritime actors to showcase good practices and global commitments to mitigate climate change. The message at COP26 was clear — the maritime industry needs to act urgently to find short-, medium- and long-term commitments that will mitigate the effects of climate change,” Alexis Rodriguez, the Panama Canal’s environmental protection specialist, told FreightWaves in a previous interview.

Is slow steaming only implemented when it’s in line with market demands?

Slow steaming reduces emissions and the likelihood of whale-ship collisions because it gives whales more time to notice and potentially avoid vessels. But the report said that slow steaming may only be implemented when it plays nicely with market demands.

“The carbon intensity indicator ratings system may encourage more slow steaming from 2023 to limit CO2 emissions but, as we have seen in the 2021 bulker fleet, vessel speeds have been more responsive to market conditions than environmental objectives,” the report said.

Environmental groups such as Pacific Environment weighed in on the rise in shipping emissions.

“Now is the perfect time for international ocean shipping companies to invest their record profits into a horizon of hope for our shared future on this planet,” Dawny’all Heydari, campaign lead of the Ship It Zero Campaign at Pacific Environment, said in a release. “It’s about time that the shipping sector takes its responsibility seriously and stops hurting our port cities and oceans in the name of profits.”

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

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Alyssa Sporrer

Alyssa is a staff writer at FreightWaves, covering sustainability news in the freight and supply chain industry, from low-carbon fuels to social sustainability, emissions & more. She graduated from Iowa State University with a double major in Marketing and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about all things environmental and enjoys outdoor activities such as skiing, ultimate frisbee, hiking, and soccer.