Carbon free shipping by 2050?

Shipping industry has increasingly been bombarded with ever increasing demands to protect the environment. I could go on how shipping is already by far the most carbon efficient mode of transport there is, but I think we all already know that.

The arguments to burn cleaner bunker are strong. Various studies have shown the correlation between sulphur emissions and respiratory diseases on costal populations. How much of the asthmatic symptoms are caused by shipping and how much by other polluting industries located near the coast is uncertain. Think of Shanghai ¬ world’s busiest container port of course sees a lot of ships, but there is also plenty of polluting industries which also contribute to the air pollution.

Nevertheless, everybody has to chip in. IMO went all the way with the sulphur regulation, and 3.5% sludge must go. Major cost to the shipping industry. Maersk, MSC and CMA CGM all estimate cost increase of $2 billion dollars annually [1, 2 & 3].

However, it seems this is not enough. UN’s special envoy for the ocean Peter Thomson urges shipping to cut its CO2 emissions to zero by 2050 rather than halving them like the original plan suggests [4].

How could complete elimination of CO2 emissions be achieved even in theory? Could we possibly see the return of so kind of sails to harness the wind? Could work for tankers/bulkers, harder for container ships. Electricity and solar panels maybe? Surface area is too small, and how about all those cloudy days? Hydrogen is promising, but it has to be stored in temperatures of -235 degree Celsius making it difficult to store. What about nuclear power? US Navy’s largest ships, aircraft carriers use nuclear reactors onboard emitting zero CO2.

I am actually surprised how nuclear technology has not been discussed as a method of CO2 reduction in shipping. NS Savannah wasn’t a major success, but she was introduced 50 years ago. Technology has advanced greatly since. USS Gerald R. Ford, 2013 launched 337 meters long and 41m beam carrier with displacement of 100,000 long tons only needs to refuel once in ten years.

Maybe – and perhaps more likely –the solution comes from some innovation we haven’t heard yet. Biofuels are a major opportunity (though I secretly hope sails will return and wood will replace steel. Just like in 1600’s!)

What ever the way to achieve zero CO2 emissions from shipping by 2050 we are in hurry already. Design and planning horizons in shipping are long as the lifespan of the ships can be up to 20 years in good market. This would mean that the ships built in early 2030 onward should already be designed zero emissions in mind. That leaves the industry with ten years to reach some type of consensus on how to radically reduce the CO2.


[1] Maersk 2018. Maersk to change fuel adjustment surcharge ahead of the 2020 sulphur cap. Copenhagen, Denmark: A.P. Moller - Maersk

[2] MSC 2018. 2020 sulphur cap. Basel, Switzerland: Mediterranean Shipping Agency AG

[3] CMA CGM 2018. Low sulphur imo 2020 regulation. Marseilles, France

[4] Adamopoulos, Anastassios. 03 May 2019, UN ocean chief warns shipping should aim for GHG emissions eradication by 2050

About Author

Tuomo Keltto

Tuomo Keltto is a logistics engineer who continued his studies in Seoul, South Korea. He studied at the Korean Government scholarship for a Master's degree in international trade and logistics. Now he is back in Finland and he works at Neste in Porvoo. - He has previously been in Steveco Hietanen for three summers as a temporary stevedore and as a foreman for one summer.