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World - To reach net zero we must decarbonise shipping, but two big problems are getting in the way

Shipping, which transports 90% of the world's trade, contributes nearly 3% of global emissions—a little more than the carbon footprint of Germany. If gone unchecked, this share could increase to 17% by 2050 as the world's GDP keeps growing.

Curbing shipping emissions has been a hot topic at the international climate summit in Glasgow, with 14 nations signing a declaration last week to bring shipping emissions down to net zero by 2050.

On Saturday, shipping industry heavyweights and senior government representatives met to iron out details of this lofty promise, ahead of the key transportation talks at COP26. Important differences emerged in whether market or regulatory rules will be most effective to push the industry towards net zero.

Shipping and aviation are notoriously difficult industries to decarbonise. They require vast amounts of fuel for international travel, and the questions of which country is responsible for emissions makes reaching agreements a mammoth and glacial task.

Growing momentum

Shipping's total emissions are set to increase this year for the first time since the global financial crisis of 2008.

If left unregulated, shipping and aviation will be responsible for almost 40% of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2050, according to a study published by the European Parliament.

With so much at stake, we're finally starting to see change, with businesses (and their customers) placing more emphasis on shipping's contribution to climate change. In October this year, nine big companies—including Amazon, Ikea, and Unilever—pledged to move their cargo only on ships using zero-carbon fuel by 2040.

What's more, three of the world's largest container shipping lines—Maersk, CMA CGM, and MSC—are actively pursuing the use of alternative fuels and aim to be net-zero compliant by 2050 or before.

A lack of technology

Most ship engines use a low-grade, carbon-heavy fuel oil, which creates significant air pollution. So some shipowners are moving to build new ships or convert existing ships to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG) instead.

While this presents a 25% reduction in CO₂ emissions compared to the current low-grade fuel, LNG still releases methane into the atmosphere—a heat-trapping gas roughly 30 times more potent than CO₂.

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