Retailers help decarbonize ocean shipping

Global brands pledge to eliminate maritime emissions by 2040

Amazon, Ikea, Patagonia, REI and Target are among 19 global brands committed to using ships powered with zero-carbon fuels when transporting goods from oversea factories by 2040. The signatories to the Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels pledge recognize that it will take extensive collaboration among carriers, ports, cargo owners and others to decarbonize the ocean transport sector. Eliminating carbon emissions from ocean shipping is one of many ways retailers are responding to climate change.

Transporting goods by ship is already 40 to 70 times cleaner than shipping goods by air and significantly less expensive. Retailers are reducing their carbon footprints and saving money by shifting shipments away from air carriers to ocean carriers. They can further reduce their footprints by partnering with ocean carrier companies that are reducing their own emissions.

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Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping and logistics services company, has committed to being climate-neutral by 2040. It is making significant investments in new technologies and partnering with retailers and others.

“This is the decade for climate action,” Lee Kindberg, head of environment and sustainability in North America for Maersk, explained at the inaugural NRF Supply Chain 360 conference earlier this year. She emphasized the importance of working collaboratively with Maersk customers, which include large numbers of retailers. It is significant, she noted, that approximately two-thirds of Maersk’s top 200 customers have set decarbonization goals for some time between the years 2038 to 2050.

Decarbonizing the ocean shipping industry is an enormous task. To clarify the scale of the challenge, Kindberg explained that a traditionally fueled container ship, which can be as long as three or four football fields, sailing round-trip from Shanghai to Rotterdam burns about 7,000 tons of marine fuel and generates 22,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. A container ship might make that trip three or four times a year.

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Operating approximately 700 vessels of various sizes, Maersk calculates that its Scope 1 emissions — emissions from its operations — were 36 million tons last year. About 93 percent of its Scope 1 emissions are fuel purchases. “It means that if you want to make a big impact, you’ve got to change the vessels and the fuels they use,” Kindberg said.

Maersk is already partnering with some of its customers, including retailers, to integrate biofuels into the fuel mix. Its ECO Delivery program splits the additional cost of biodiesel fuels, made from biobased waste streams, between Maersk and the customer. The customer purchases biodiesel quantities equivalent to the fuel needed to transport their containers and the fuel is integrated into the Maersk fuel supplies. Maersk then issues a carbon credit, verified by the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification program, to the customer to validate the customer’s carbon reduction activity. The entire process is audited by an outside firm.

Kindberg noted that Maersk’s decarbonization strategy is not just about changing the fuels powering the current fleet. It is also about new technologies that will power the next generation of vessels that will compose its future fleet.

Maersk, for example, ordered 13 vessels that will operate on methanol made from biomass gasification (bio-methanol) or methanol made with renewable electricity and captured carbon dioxide (e-methanol). It will take time to turn over the fleet to this or other new carbon-free propulsion technologies. The lifetime of an ocean vessel is 20 to 25 years, meaning that ships purchased 15 years ago can still have another 10 years of useful life.

In addition, the ocean carrier industry, ports and fueling infrastructure industries must all collaborate to successfully transition to a net-zero future. Zero-carbon fuels will not be available everywhere at the same time. Competitors within multiple industries will need to collaborate and prioritize the establishment of green shipping corridors so ocean carriers can make investment decisions based on which routes provide which fueling options. Change will not happen overnight.

The necessary collaboration requires shared metrics. The fuel emission factors and carbon accounting systems needed to measure and manage the transition to net-zero ocean shipping were being discussed almost 20 years ago. Back in 2003, Maersk and other ocean carrier companies, retailers and other cargo owners worked collaboratively as part of the Global Logistics Emissions Council to develop the appropriate protocols. The GLEC approach ensures that everyone is using the same reporting framework and standards.

Agreeing on a standard approach means everyone is measuring progress and calculating transition costs and benefits the same way. Aligning on common metrics makes collaboration easier. And collaboration is what makes sustainability possible.

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