Is it CoZEV red for shipping?

Who are the most powerful people in the maritime industry? The head of the IMO, ILO or BIMCO? The CEOs of the big boxship operators, the titans of tonnage that dominate the bulk trades? Not even close.

The people one could say are most directly in charge of shipping’s destiny are a bunch of academics at University College London. Having previously driven the industry’s sustainability agenda from behind the scenes, they have landed their biggest blow yet; persuading some of the world’s biggest shippers to sign up to ‘zero emissions shipping’ by 2040.

While we recover from the shock of reading something so mind-boggling in its ambition and scope, it is worth remembering that this is only one of many announcements made in the run up to COP26 as parts of the shipping industry, its customers and stakeholders vie to demonstrate the greenest possible commitment.

In the case of UMAS’ Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels (coZEV) initiative, there is at least a realisation that the way emissions are measured needs to be on a well-to-wake or lifecycle basis.

It characterises zero-carbon fuels as ones that “have zero greenhouse gas emissions on a lifecycle basis, are sufficiently scalable to decarbonize the entire shipping industry, and for which safety and land use concerns have been addressed”. So ones that don’t presently exist.

For UMAS, LNG does not meet its criteria and the cargo owners agree that their goals are most likely to be accomplished with hydrogen-based fuels. Bad news if you are a boxship owner putting the finishing touches to your LNG-fuelled fleet or having just signed up for LNG-powered ships.

Of course coZEV, like all similar plans is an ambition statement. No-one knows what will happen if they fail to reach this target. But what it does is “send an important demand signal to the maritime value chain and bunker fuel producers that freight customers want zero-carbon shipping and they expect the industry to rapidly accelerate its decarbonization efforts in the years ahead.”

The signatories to the statement also indicated the need for a better understanding of their own maritime emissions, working with carriers to reduce emissions by maximising energy efficiency through operational and technical measures and harnessing buying power to help establish the first zero-carbon maritime transportation corridors.

One suspects at this point the owners will be looking for the means to demonstrate they have a handle on those emissions and can demonstrate how far they have improved over time. Many have only a rough idea based on historical data.

However, as with all the latest zero emission/net zero/low carbon initiatives, the coZEV companies believe in sticks as well as carrots. And while the statement stops short of outright criticism of the IMO, the signatories “call on policymakers around the world to take swift and ambitious action to advance maritime shipping decarbonization — in their domestic, regional, and international leadership capacities”.

The IMO’s greenhouse gas strategy for shipping only requires the sector to reduce its absolute emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 and coZEV, like others, feels it needs to go further and faster, fully decarbonising by 2050.

While ignoring your customers is clearly a bad idea, this to some extent puts the industry back where it was pre the establishment of the IMO’s GHG measures. Uncertainty was the order of the day because while market measures can begin or enhance a process, ultimately it is the big stick that matters. Orders for LNG powered ships will continue until they are expressly forbidden.

To that extent, the EU’s Fit for 55 strategy demonstrates the kind of action that is needed to incentivise, cajole, bully and propel the industry towards accurately countable carbon and ultimately sustainable performance. The coZEV coalition is a similar group of believers who can push their market power on the providers that service them. Which just leaves the unbelievers to convince.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash