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A maritime nation: the UK could lead the world in eliminating shipping emissions

Jon Hood, Sustainable Shipping Manager | Transport & Environment

3 min read Partner content

But will the government seize the moment?

Imagine it’s 2030, and the UK proudly leads the world in clean shipping. Thanks to visionary policy in the government’s updated Clean Maritime Plan published in late-2023, all ships calling at UK ports now have to show that their greenhouse gas emissions are dropping to meet the carbon budgets. The ships are highly efficient, because UK ports only grant entry to ships rated “A” by international efficiency standards. Hi-tech wind sails of all shapes and sizes, many designed and built in the UK, are a common sight around the coast, saving vessels fuel. And thanks to a UK requirement for zero-emission shipping, vessels are propelled by growing quantities of UK-produced, renewable, hydrogen-based fuels and electricity – instead of imported oil.

The UK’s many port towns, once blighted by some of the worst air pollution in the country, now breathe easy. Now that ports are zero-emission, vessels no longer burn heavy fuel oil for electricity. Instead, they plug into shore power, or use other zero-emission technologies. And ports are fast becoming hotbeds of innovation, supporting thousands of high-quality jobs in green marine fuels and technologies. Due to a far-sighted programme of government finance for zero-emission ships, UK shipbuilding is enjoying a renaissance.

Back to reality, and this bold vision of the future remains as distant as ever. Whilst industry calls for clear emissions targets and long-term policy certainty, the government plans only voluntary targets and only for domestic shipping, passing the buck for UK international shipping emissions – the vast majority of the total – onto the ineffective International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Small wonder that the Climate Change Committee concluded that the UK has “no credible policies” to ensure the shipping sector – nearly a fifth of all UK transport emissions in 2021 – meets the requirements of the 6th Carbon Budget from 2033.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The UK already has the laws it needs to make the above vision a reality. And with that would come opportunities built on the UK’s existing maritime heritage and expertise: green industries, flourishing export markets, energy security, improved air quality and international climate leadership, to name just some.

The government must heed the Climate Change Committee’s warning, and also recognise that the IMO’s newly-agreed 2050 strategy on shipping emissions is too weak to meet the UK’s climate obligations.

The UK must use its powers in international law to move further and faster than the IMO, introducing its own, stronger standards for all UK shipping, limiting emissions whilst driving the uptake of zero-emission fuels and technologies. The EU has already done so. The UK must too – but outside the EU, we can, and must, go further. The opportunities are there for the taking.

A clean maritime strategy built around binding emissions targets for all UK shipping and a framework for zero-emission maritime technologies would be world-leading, and the action of a government taking decisions for the long-term. A strategy that includes only voluntary targets and only for UK domestic shipping – less than one fifth of total UK shipping emissions – would not.

The Clean Maritime Plan refresh and government response to the Climate Change Committee are just around the corner. What better time than now to turn the ship around?

The course to shipping’s zero-emission future is clearly charted. The UK could, and should, be at the helm.

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The Engineering a Better World podcast series from The House magazine and the IET is back for series two! New host Jonn Elledge discusses with parliamentarians and industry experts how technology and engineering can provide policy solutions to our changing world.

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