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The U.S. and IMO Move to Decarbonize the Maritime Industry

The Biden Administration have proven their commitment to climate change in the first months of being in office. Part of this included rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and proposing the American Jobs Plan. Both actions require significant reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. An essential part of their environmental commitment is the maritime sector, which will have a key role to play in reducing its 2-3% share of global carbon emissions, with the sector’s emissions, based on volume, expected to increase by between 50% and 250% by 2050.

Domestically and internationally, increased attention is being given to the decarbonization of the maritime and other transportation sectors in order to meet the Paris Climate goals. By decarbonization, we mean reducing, or mitigating emissions from, the use of fossil fuels. This article describes both domestic and international steps being taken to achieve this goal.

In April of this year, the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held its first hearing of the 117th Congress focused on decarbonization.  As full Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio said in his opening statement:

“The international maritime industry accounts for 3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions with the potential to grow to 10 percent by 2050 if significant changes are not made. The maritime industry cannot afford to waste any time; we must decarbonize now.”

We can expect to see more scrutiny paid to the maritime industry when the larger infrastructure package is completed, and the Coast Guard and Maritime Administration bills are introduced and reported by their respective House and Senate committees. These bills are to be introduced later this summer, putting the spotlight on the maritime industry and its emissions.

On the international stage, the IMO seeks to achieve a 40% reduction of the average carbon intensity by 2030 and a 70% reduction by 2050. John Kerry, the international climate envoy for President Biden, is pushing to exceed these goals with a target of zero emissions by 2050.

The governments of Denmark, Norway, and the United States partnered with the Global Maritime Forum and the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping in announcing their Zero Emission Mission. The Secretary of Energy has the lead for implementing the stated objectives in the U.S. The main goals of this mission include having 5% of the global deep-sea fleet run on zero-emission fuels, such as green hydrogen or advanced biofuel, by 2030. Although modest, the mission is achievable and focuses on the next decade. While the immediate effects are minimal, the tripartite mission seeks to create private-public connections for future goals and also funds the Research & Development for renewable fuels to set up the shipping industry with green technology.

Maersk is making headlines with its efforts in decarbonization in more ways than just its partnership with the Zero Emission Mission. Not only have they shown transparency, admitting to their contributions in CO2 emissions, but they’re also pushing for a $150-a-ton carbon tax in shipping fuel, which would bridge the gap between the price of oil and the price of fossil fuels.

These goals are ambitious, but they are impossible without an acceleration in renewable energies. The pressure from the public as well as the government has created a financial incentive to go green. How to do so, though, is yet to be determined. Biofuel, for example, is being utilized as a greener option in emissions for many companies such as Maersk. The supply of biofuel is limited and expanding it wouldn’t be very sustainable.

Research & development is underfunded in the United States in comparison to foreign competitors. The current state of all future fuels is problematic; therefore, we cannot yet determine what fuel (or which fuels) will prevail in carbon-neutral shipping.

Some bills introduced in the House of Representatives, such as the CLEAN Future Act (H.R. 1512), seek to invest in accelerating decarbonization in all forms of transportation. This bill would authorize $565 billion over 10 years to invest in the need for technological advancements, and support decarbonizing efforts. The U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, in its FY2022 budget request, prioritizes multiple renewable energy sources for a fully decarbonized power sector by 2050.

For the maritime industry, the same rules apply. The 2030 goal of achieving a 40% reduction in emissions may be achievable for a number of existing vessels, but the technology sufficient for the IMO’s goal of 2050 is unknown. The long life span of large vessels makes this issue complicated; if they cannot be converted into vessels run by the renewable fuel we eventually adopt, the vessel could become a “stranded asset”, unable to trade under new regulations.

In order to reach goals of 100% decarbonization, the maritime industry will have to find a complete replacement for fossil fuels; a popular option being green hydrogen. Green hydrogen has the power to replace diesel, without the worry of distance limitations that electric batteries include. Despite its feasibility, there’s very little green hydrogen available; most hydrogen power right now is still produced using fossil fuels.

In conclusion, the maritime industry is the subject of increasing attention with respect to the goals of achieving zero emissions both at the IMO and in the U.S. Time and money for research on new fuels will tell whether these goals are achievable.

Joan M. Bondareff and Ryan Salese

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