Net Zero or Not Zero?

As the IMO MEPC meets virtually this week to try and move forward on the commitments outlined at COP 26, it looks clear that despite the Secretary-General’s regular exhortation at the start of the meeting, failure is very much an option.

Still let’s not despair, despite day one’s rejection of a call for IMO to commit to zero emission shipping by 2050 (a far stricter target than the current ambition which seeks 50% cuts based on a baseline set in 2008) there is plenty of time for the technical process to inch forwards.

How much more in terms of big statement politics we hear over the next week remains to be seen. On the ground, and in the water it seems shipowners’ attention has turned to how to save energy while the leaders of the free world work out how to save the planet.

The great and the good, class societies among them, seem to accept that while we wait for sustainable alternative fuels to become available, it will be increasingly necessary to save all the energy possible.

This is not just advisable given soaring fuel bills and tight energy demand, but because it is a more practical way to lower emissions in the short term without building to LNG (costly and problematic) or Methanol fuel (similar and half the energy).

But as one of those leaders, US special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry wrote recently, those who wait to invest will likely rue the day.

In a piece for the Financial Times, Kerry declared “bold private-sector leadership” as critical for reaching the goals outlined at COP, in particular to decarbonise the industries where the transition to net zero emissions has barely begun.

“Solar and wind power alone cannot transform the global economy,” he wrote, saying what many already appreciate. Rapid progress in the so-called “hard-to-abate” sectors, including heavy industry and shipping is also needed. These represent a third of global carbon emissions and, by 2050, could produce a majority, he added.

With the signature still wet on the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill, he had a political point to make too, but the call is urgent if shipping and heavy industry are to make short term progress.

Kerry believes “a coalition of first-mover companies could harness their supply chains to scale up innovative breakthroughs, in turn driving down the cost of clean technologies in sectors where there are as yet no commercial alternatives to unabated fossil fuels.”

“Could” is probably the key word here and Kerry still thinks the big tickets should be focussed on investing in alt fuels that will ultimately replace fossil feedstocks. In aviation he notes, companies have pledged to buy advanced technologies that can reduce lifecycle emissions by 85% or more compared with conventional jet fuel, without any offsets.

All well and good, but apart from the aforementioned LNG and Methanol, shipping lacks a similar model, hence the arguing about the proceeds from the EU ETS, the ICS proposal for a carbon levy to fund alt fuel development and the rest.

He does concede that “many critical technologies are not yet commercially available,” but Kerry thinks that strong demand signals will turbocharge investments in innovation. “A renaissance is already under way in the private investment landscape for the next generation of technologies, from producing clean hydrogen-based fuels to capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

“Private investment in early-stage clean technologies has already smashed the historical record, amassing $37bn in the first three quarters of 2021.”

Kerry talked a good game on shipping during COP26 but this is where the problems start. Without much more accurate measurement of real maritime emissions, it seems unlikely that large scale investors of the type the industry needs will come forward in the quantity and quality required.

The problem with transparency is that it cannot be partial. You’re either in or you’re out. So while it may take IMO member states a very long time to recognise that a net zero commitment is not the same as a binding target, Kerry’s message is the right one. If we’re going to survive the effects of climate change we’d better start designing better ships now.

Photo by Ramlee Ibrahim on Unsplash