The Environment

Aspen Shipping Decarbonization Initiative: Tackling an Urgent Challenge for #OceanClimateAction

February 24, 2021  • Ingrid Irigoyen & Taylor Goelz

The Aspen Institute’s Energy and Environment Program (EEP) has a more than 50 year track record of working on hard-to-address energy and environmental issues. EEP’s approach is grounded in the Aspen Institute’s philosophy that humanity makes progress when thinkers and do’ers from different backgrounds and perspectives come together to solve critical problems. The program also embraces the power of artful convenings with open minded individuals to illuminate new and innovative pathways forward.

In order to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) call to keep global warming under 2° Celsius, and preferably 1.5°, we know that we must reduce global GHG emissions by nearly half by 2030 and achieve a net-zero global economy by 2050. This means that every emitting sector must contribute to this mission. In recent years, at EEP we’ve convened leaders and stakeholders to address this challenge across numerous sectors, focusing on issues such as modernization of America’s electricity grids, agricultural decarbonization, coastal management and resilience, building cooperation between the U.S. and other nations on international climate action, reforming the U.S. school system to contribute to climate solutions, and the potential for carbon capture, utilization, and storage to contribute to the solutions mix, among many other topics. 

As the ocean has begun to take a center stage in climate conversations through the #OceanClimateAction movement, we are now turning our attention and convening power toward issues at the ocean-climate interface. And we’re starting with the immense challenge of decarbonizing the global maritime shipping sector. 

Maritime transport is a classic harder to abate sector, that is, one that has been plagued by a relatively high anticipated cost of cutting GHG emissions and slow progress in advancing solutions. Yet we cannot be daunted by these challenges. The high current level of GHG emissions from this sector, the potential for rapid growth in those emissions, and decades of delay in making progress mean that rapid decarbonization of maritime shipping is now urgent, if we are to limit warming to within the IPCC goals.  

To put a finer point on it, despite advances in fuel efficiency and other short term fixes like reducing ship speeds, the emissions from shipping continue to increase even as other sectors are demonstrating measurable progress. The 2020 Fourth International Maritime Organization (IMO) GHG Study anticipates up to 130% increase in GHG emissions from shipping by 2050 (from 2008 baseline). It also found a 150% increase in methane and a 12% increase in black carbon between 2012 and 2018, both considered “climate super pollutants.” The industry must do better.

Accelerating shipping decarbonization will need to involve a range of solutions and significant public and private sector investment. Actions that need to be taken include, among others:

  • Technology: Quickly confirming the safety and feasibility of various zero emission technology options and creating the necessary international standards and protocols to allow those technologies to be operationalized.
  • Supply chains: Developing roadmaps and agreements for rapid creation of new supply chains for green shipping fuels and technologies.
  • Policy change: Enacting domestic, regional, and international policies and regulations that will bring shipping emissions in line with science based targets and enable a new marketplace for zero emission shipping by bridging the price gap between green (zero life cycle emission) fuels and currently cheaper fossil fuels.
  • International coordination: Working with nations across the globe to identify and establish green transportation corridors anchored by national government policies, ports infrastructure, and zero emission fuel bunkering capacity necessary for zero emission service offerings to enter the marketplace.
  • Public and private sector investment: Fully decarbonizing the shipping sector will require a global investment of  $1.4-$1.9 trillion in the 20 years between 2030 and 2050, as explained in a Global Maritime Forum (GMF) 2020 Insight Brief. While this number is striking, GMF points out that global investments in energy were estimated at $1.85 trillion in 2018 alone. Considered from the U.S. domestic perspective, the U.S. subsidizes the fossil fuel industry at approximately $20 billion per year, according to a conservative estimate by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.
  • Corporate Commitments: Encouraging companies across the shipping value chain, including carriers and major multinational cargo owners, to adopt shipping decarbonization commitments aligned with a 1.5° trajectory and work with their suppliers to ensure the target is reached. Cargo owners, many of which are public facing companies with ambitious net zero commitments, can play an essential role by sending demand signals that can help underpin investments needed to build supply chains for new green shipping fuels and technologies.

In considering the roles that EEP can play to accelerate the pace of change in this space under the auspices of a new Aspen Shipping Decarbonization Initiative, we see three clear needs that we can help meet:

  • Convening major multinational freight buyers, starting with those reliant on the container shipping segment, through a new project we call Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels (coZEV) that brings together corporate and nonprofit partners to:
    • Set a high level of ambition among major freight buyers and establish mechanisms to harness their corporate buying power to catalyze the emergence of zero emission deepwater container freight service offerings in the years ahead.
    • Foster greater transparency about shipping emissions to help track and assess those emissions against 1.5° alignment over time and incentivize greater investment by carriers and other supply chain actors in decarbonization.
  • Elevating the need for shipping decarbonization within the U.S. policy context.
    This means ensuring that the growing momentum for domestic U.S. climate action includes policies, incentives, regulations and investments that will allow our nation, the largest global importer of goods from around the world, to use our position of leverage (and our reemergence in support of international climate action) to do our part to accelerate shipping decarbonization.
  • Advancing the establishment of green transoceanic maritime transport corridors.
    By identifying and advocating for the establishment of green maritime transportation corridors that have a nexus with U.S. ports of entry and alignment with the logistical interests of cargo owners engaged in the coZEV initiative that seek to lead on this issue, we can help lay the groundwork for concrete projects that accelerate the transformation of this industry.

By focusing on these objectives (to start) and partnering with leading organizations and companies from around the world, EEP can tap the vast network, convening power, and nonpartisan platform of the Aspen Institute to drive urgently needed progress in the decarbonization of this vitally important sector of the global economy, and ensure that the United States plays a leadership role in shaping that transformation.

As we set sail on this ambitious mission, we welcome new ideas, partnerships, and solutions. For more information, contact Ingrid Irigoyen at [email protected]


Ingrid Irigoyen is the Associate Director, Ocean and Climate, Energy and Environment Program; Taylor Goelz is the Program Manager, Aspen Shipping Decarbonization Initiative, Energy and Environment Program 

Kitty Pollack, Program Associate at the Energy & Environment Program also contributed to this piece.

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