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The Port of Seattle
Credit: Port of Seattle

Big shippers promise zero carbon by 2040. Too late, say climate activists

Major shippers including Amazon, Ikea, and Unilever say they will stop putting their stuff on ships that burn fossil fuels in the next 20 years.

“Facing a climate crisis, our interconnected global economy and the maritime industry that facilitates global trade must decarbonize rapidly,” a press release from the companies states.

Other signers include Michelin, Patagonia, and Seattle-based Brooks Sports.

“We hope to inspire a surge in investment by ocean freight carriers and producers of zero-carbon shipping fuels,” the companies’ press release states.

Getting to zero carbon emissions by 2040 is more ambitious than the shipping industry as a whole has agreed to, yet less ambitious than climate activists say is needed.

It’s a decade sooner than the Port of Seattle’s 2050 target for zeroing out emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases from its operations. The United Nations’ International Maritime Organization only aims to halve the sector’s greenhouse gas pollution by 2050.

“I think this is the kind of leadership that we've been counting on … that hopefully will allow us to have a livable planet long into the future,” Seattle Port Commission president Fred Felleman said of the shippers’ 2040 commitment.

Under Seattle’s Green New Deal law, the city must aim to eliminate carbon emissions from all sources within city limits by 2030.

Tuesday afternoon, the Seattle Port Commission is scheduled to discuss a move to accelerate the Port of Seattle’s decarbonization efforts by a decade.

Port of Seattle executive director Stephen Metruck has proposed eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from port operations by 2040 instead of 2050 as currently planned. The port’s mid-term target would remain unchanged: cut emissions in half by 2030.

The largest category of emissions associated with the port have a more lenient timetable and would be eliminated by 2050 under the port’s new target. The port has less control over those so-called Scope 3 emissions, mostly from fuel burned by airplanes and ships that use port facilities.

“We are doing what we can that we have direct control over to do our part,” Felleman said.

About 90% of world trade is transported by ship, causing about 3% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the International Maritime Organization.

West Coast environmental groups Pacific Environment and Stand.Earth called on the shipping sector to eliminate its climate-harming pollution by the end of this decade.

There are currently zero commercial cargo ships running on climate-friendly fuels.

“No commercially operating deepwater cargo ship is powered by green hydrogen or other zero-carbon fuels, meaning cargo owners have no option currently to purchase zero-carbon shipping services,” Ingrid Irigoyen of the Aspen Institute, which worked with the shippers on their decarbonization plan, said in an email.

Global shipping giant Maersk says it will launch its first carbon-neutral ship in 2023 and reduce overall emissions 60% by the end of this decade.

Irigoyen said a goal of the companies in announcing their zero-carbon timetable is to inspire confidence in shipbuilders and others to invest in zero-carbon power sources and ships that can run on them.

Pacific Environment and Stand.Earth called on shippers to immediately reduce their climate and health-harming emissions by reducing ship speeds (an energy-saving strategy known as slow-steaming) and shipping only on vessels that do not burn heavy fuel oil or methane-based liquid natural gas.

The big shippers’ announcement does not address the rising use of air freight, which burns much more fuel and damages the climate much more to move a ton of goods between continents.

Irigoyen said one way shippers like Amazon can quickly reduce their emissions is to use ocean shipping more instead of air freight.

“Of course, both air and ocean freight need to decarbonize in order for society to meet our Paris Agreement goals,” Irigoyen said.