Amazon’s zero-carbon pledge: can shipping achieve decarbonisation sooner?

In the wake of some of the largest global retailers committing to using zero-carbon ships by 2040, Luke Christou asks: is it too little, too late?

Image: copyright

Today, shipping is responsible for approximately 3% of global emissions, but, given the rate of GDP growth, this is likely to rise to as much as 17% by 2050 if left unchecked, according to the European Parliament.

“Whether you’re a small business supplying niche print-on-demand products, a global conglomerate with a warehouse near every port, or a developer of offshore infrastructure, if you’re relying on the ocean to transport goods or services, you need to be cognisant about the impact that your business and, by extension, this mode of transport has on the environment,” says Kris Fumberger, head of sustainability and environment at RightShip. 

All businesses have a part to play. However, for some, the consequences of inaction would be far greater. According to Pacific Environment’s Shady Ships report, just 15 retailers contributed 12.7 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019 – equivalent to three coal-fired power plants or the energy use of 1.5 million homes.

A commitment to green shipping

These companies alone, the report states, have the market power to force change in shipping. In October 2021, a handful of these retailers took the positive first step by pledging to move cargo on ships using zero-carbon marine fuels by 2040. 

Among its signatories are Amazon and Ikea, whose US imports alone produced more than 800,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2019. Brooks Running, Frog Bikes, Inditex, Michelin, Patagonia, Tchibo, and Unilever were also among the first to commit. 

As part of the Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels (coZEV), the pledge will see these retailers use their combined ‘voices, capacity for innovation, and economies of scale’ to accelerate decarbonisation in the maritime sector.

Should these companies switch to zero-carbon fuels entirely by 2040, this would put them ahead of the schedule set out for shipping under the Paris Agreement, which states green fuels must be used at scale by 2030 with total decarbonisation to be achieved by 2050.

The network of retailers hopes through a number of planned initiatives, including supporting public policies that will accelerate and lower the cost of the decarbonisation transition and promoting new and improved tools for tracking shipping emissions data, it can encourage full sector decarbonisation by the 2050 deadline.

Immediate climate action

The commitment by these major players sends a “clear market signal that maritime climate pollution will no longer be able to sail under the radar for retail brands and their cargo carriers”, says Kendra Ulrich, shipping campaigns director for Stand.earth, an environmental organisation and member of the Ship It Zero coalition. 

Likewise, the pledge also rejects liquified natural gas, which will put pressure on the container shipping sector to focus on emissions-free technologies and fuels. However, it also falls short on “immediate greenhouse gas reductions and an ambitious timeline”. 

Ship It Zero, a climate and public health campaign, has challenged Amazon, Ikea, Target and Walmart to commit to 100% zero-emissions shipping by 2030.

“While it may take more time for the entire global container fleet to reach zero emissions, individual companies can commit to sending their freight exclusively on zero-emission ships this decade. This is the kind of corporate leadership that is needed to catalyse the transition to emissions-free maritime shipping,” Ulrich insists.

Hydrogen-powered cargo vessels are set to sail from 2024. Pictured: Egil Ulvan Rederi’s ‘With Orca’. Credit: Egil Ulvan Rederi

Zero-emission shipping is already on the horizon, with numerous companies racing to launch green cargo vessels powered by fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia. Shipping companies and designers such as Wilhelmsen and Norwegian Ship Design have announced their zero-emissions vessels will be operational by early 2024, for instance.

Similarly, at COP26, 22 countries signed a declaration to launch six green shipping corridors by 2025, which alone could enable the early adoption of decarbonisation solutions and contribute a 0.6% decrease in shipping emissions.

But these companies do not need to wait for 100% zero-emission vessels to take to the waters before they can begin to make positive changes to reduce emissions in their supply chains, according to Ulrich. 

“We are calling for retail brands and cargo carriers to take immediate steps to reduce their climate footprints by employing readily available efficiency retrofits, operational measures, and switching to marine gas oil in the short term to reduce emissions of climate super-pollutant black carbon.”

Accelerating decarbonisation in shipping

However, achieving net-zero by 2040, let alone 2030, will be no easy feat. With 15,000 general cargo ships currently facilitating international trade, switching to net-zero fuel supplies won’t be as simple as “flicking a switch”, says Jonathan Moss, partner and head of marine and trade for DWF. 

Successfully converting existing fleets will depend on a number of variables, including the ability to source eco-friendly fuels. While demand is still somewhat small, shipping companies are already facing this issue. In February, Maersk announced it would deploy a carbon-neutral vessel powered by green methanol, a low-carbon fuel, by 2023. However, the shipping giant has admitted it faces a big challenge in sourcing enough fuel for the ship to sail as planned.

As well as increasing the availability of eco-friendly fuels, the shipping industry must also commit to a systematic industry-wide transformation that includes overhauling both vessels and shore-side infrastructure. 

“As an industry, we need to partner up with shore-side innovators who will be the driving force behind the decarbonisation technology required to invoke such an overhaul. On the water, vessel design will be crucial to not only optimise operations, but also to accommodate the new technology that is being developed on land,” Fumberger explains. 

“Engines need to be ready to process future fuels. Hulls need optimal coatings to reduce fouling and drag. Existing vessels needed to be adapted and modified on a case-by-case basis.”

Footing the decarbonisation bill

The next five years will be crucial, Moss says. With significant scientific progress, the 2040 target could be met. However, then there is the issue of cost and whether shipping companies will be willing to foot the bill: “Effecting change comes at an unprecedented cost. Some estimates suggest it will take well over $2tn of investment to get shipping to net-zero carbon dioxide emissions.”

Here, platforms such as coZEV can play a role in accelerating change. If cargo owners such as Amazon (which delivered record revenues of $386bn in 2020, up 38% year-over-year) are truly committed to reducing shipping emissions, then they have the deep pockets required to pay the premium that comes with switching to low- and zero-carbon alternatives.

“At this stage, it really does boil down to money. Banks, financiers, leasing houses, and shipowners hold the keys to investment in the next generation of vessels,” Fumberger insists. “And with the current profitability of containerships, the time is ripe for the Amazons and Ikeas of the world to drive forward the decarbonisation agenda.”