COP26 ambitions: The governments are willing, but is the shipping sector able?

Shipping, to no one’s surprise, was one of the key topics of discussion at COP26. After all, the sector is said to blast over a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

A series of shipping-related topics were hosted at the conference.  In the first few days alone, country and sector leaders addressed subjects including “Zero Emission Shipping”, “Charging to Net Zero”, “Risk sharing to drive decarbonisation”, and the “Practical climate change adaptation challenges and good practice solutions for ports”. In the following days, discussions continued around “Offshore and Marine Renewables” and “Financing the Technological Evolution”.

Some highlights include the “Call to Action for Shipping Decarbonisation”, which was signed by more than 200 maritime organisations in the lead up to COP26; the enactment of the “Glasgow Climate Pact”, to which 197 countries committed to accelerate efforts towards the phase-down of coal power; and the founding of the “Just Transition Maritime Task Force” to support seafarers by helping them develop new green skills and identify best practice across the value chain.

Also at COP26, Denmark led 14 other nations including the U.S., Germany, the U.K., and France, to issue a “Declaration on Zero Emission Shipping by 2050”. The 15 signatories are committing to achieve zero emissions from international shipping by 2050, and as part of that, have also called for significant greenhouse gas reductions in the interim.

Complementary to that, 22 countries also launched another new initiative – the global “green shipping” corridors along which ships can travel burning zero emissions, more formally known as the Clydebank Declaration.

The 22 signatories, which include Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S., are committing to develop the technology, expertise and infrastructure that will enable key shipping routes to go zero-carbon.

The world’s largest exporter, China, is notably absent, though that doesn’t mean it cannot sign up in the future. Last month, China opened the world’s first zero-carbon terminal in Tianjin.

The Clydebank Declaration aims to establish at least six seaborne trade lanes as part of a pilot project by 2025. Pilot candidate routes so far have been identified as the iron ore route from Australia to Japan, and the container shipping route from Asia to Europe. The U.S. has already been working on two green shipping corridors across the Pacific.

The COP26 ambitions, while absolutely commendable and necessary, presents and exposes significant challenges.

There is already technology for zero-carbon ships but it needs to be finessed before ships can be built. Even though some shipowners are already moving in this direction, by developing innovative new builds or by fitting new tech to their existing fleet, the vast adoption of new zero-emission technologies will require infrastructure, stronger investments and clear regulations.

There is a lack of ports with viable supplies of alternative fuels because they are too costly to produce when compared to traditional fossil fuels.

The key is incentivisation primarily Governments stepping in with policies to make alternative fuels more competitive and encourage the building of zero-carbon ships.

In our future editions, we hope to do a deeper dive into the challenges associated with the zero emissions target and the potential legal issues that may loom.

The editors, JTJB Lawyers