A cargo ship at Yangshan Deepwater Port on Oct. 23, 2021 in Shanghai, China
VCG via Getty Images
November 11, 2021 9:32 AM EST

At COP26 this year, the climate advocacy organization Arctic Basecamp had a four-ton piece of glacier shipped from Greenland to Glasgow in what was supposed to be a visual reminder of what Arctic warming means for the planet. The effort largely fell flat for delegates—most of whom understand by now that climate change is a threat. But the iceberg stunt did, however inadvertently, draw attention to one sector that has so far done the least in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change: the shipping industry.

Arctic Basecamp did not use a zero-emission vessel to transport the chunk of ice. Instead, they used a fossil-fuel-burning cargo ship, promising to offset three times its total emissions to reflect the fact that the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet. The fact that a climate advocacy group had to rely on one of the world’s dirtiest fuels—cargo ships run on the cheap sludge that is left over after everything else has been refined out of fossil fuels—to make a flashy gesture highlights just how important shipping is to the global economy. Shipping accounts for 2.2% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions; if the industry were a country, it would be the sixth largest CO2 emitter in the world, on par with Germany . “It doesn’t matter if we want iPhones that come from China, steaks from Brazil or to tow an iceberg to Glasgow; we all depend fundamentally on international shipping for everything that we do,” says Johannah Christensen, head of the Global Maritime Forum, a Copenhagen-based think tank for sustainability in shipping. “This just underscores the importance of decarbonizing shipping.”

Christensen is at COP26 to promote industry calls to bring the International Maritime Organization into alignment with the goals of the Paris Agreement, meaning that the member nations of the U.N. body that governs shipping would collectively commit to reducing emissions in order to limit global warming to less than 2°C above preindustrial levels. It won’t be easy, largely because the industry still relies almost completely on cheap fossil fuels.

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Some ferry boat systems can transition to battery power, and some already have. But for the approximately 60,000 heavy ocean-going cargo vessels that spend months at sea transporting global goods, there is no real alternative to fossil fuels, at least not yet. Russia has developed nuclear-powered ice-breaking vessels to transport goods across the Arctic, but the technology is expensive. And wind-and-solar powered cargo ships are still decades away, if they ever materialize. In the meantime, to reduce emissions, cargo companies need a portable, energy-dense solution.

The most promising technology, says Christensen, is either hydrogen or synthetic fuels, such as methanol or ammonia, that can be created using green hydrogen. But those fuels, while technically applicable, are not yet on the market. So, it is difficult for companies to invest in vessels that can be powered by these new fuels when building a ship takes several years. “It’s this chicken-and-egg problem of supply and demand,” says Christensen. “In order for shipping to be decarbonized, it needs access to zero-emission fuels. For zero-emission fuels to be produced the suppliers of those fuels need confidence that there’s a market for them.” And once those fuels are available, they will certainly be more expensive than the fuel the shipping sector uses today.

Decarbonizing the world’s fleet of cargo ships is not just an issue for the shipping industry. Ikea, Amazon, Apple and Nestle, among scores of other major consumer goods companies, have all made pledges to reach net-zero emissions before 2050, but they won’t be able to unless the shipping industry gets there first. That will mean paying more to move their goods around the world. According to a Global Maritime Forum study , decarbonizing the global shipping fleet, which includes land-based port and fuel infrastructure, will cost about $1.9 trillion over 20 or 30 years.

“Society has to accept the fact that shipping costs will increase,” says Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), which represents about 80% of global transport and shipping boat owners. Still, he notes, it won’t be by much. “Shipping is a remarkably efficient form of transportation. When you’ve got 20,000 tons on a container ship, even if there is a big increase in fuel prices, that cost will be spread across every single container.” So the price of a high-end pair of jeans may only go up by a few cents.

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New fuels won’t be enough, says Platten, speaking on the sidelines of a panel on Wednesday about decarbonizing global transport. In a first for the transport sector, the ICS has proposed a global carbon levy on fossil fuels used in the industry it represents. “It does sound a bit unusual—‘Industry calls to pay more,’” agrees Platten. “But I’ve not met anybody in the industry who doesn’t recognize we’ve got to do something. We need to incentivize shipowners to switch and the only way that’s going to happen is by having a carbon price, otherwise there would still be an incentive to burn fossil fuels.” Putting a price on carbon, and negotiating its trade, was one of the goals of this year’s COP. Whether or not nations can agree to go forward with the plan remains to be seen.

Some shipping companies are already getting ahead of the game. Danish shipping giant Maersk announced in August that it would be launching the first of eight cargo container vessels running on carbon neutral methanol fuel in 2024. The location of 2024’s COP 29 event has not yet been named, but by then at least, Arctic Basecamp might be able to use carbon free shipping to tow their chunk of glacier over. If there are any left.

A version of this story first appeared in the Climate is Everything newsletter. We’re currently sending a daily email from COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. To sign up, click here.

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