Emissions from ships and planes continue to rise

By: Reinhold Pape

Shipping and aviation represented around 3% and 2% respectively of global CO₂ emissions in the mid-2000s. While land-based transport is starting to switch to low-carbon alternative fuels, sea and land transport are not yet following suit, and emissions are rising. According to NGOs, in November 2020 an IMO committee approved a proposal “that will allow the shipping sector’s 1 billion tonnes of annual greenhouse gas emissions to keep rising for the rest of this decade – the very decade in which the world’s climate scientists say we must halve global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to stay within a relatively safe 1.5°C of global warming, as committed to under the Paris Climate Agreement”.

According to the UN, “emissions from fuel used for international aviation and maritime transport (international bunker fuels) have been addressed under the UN Climate Convention (UNFCCC) since 1995. The UNFCCC invited the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and International Maritime Organization (IMO) to contribute to the work on the allocation and control of emissions from international bunker fuels. In response to this request, emissions from fuel used for international aviation and maritime transport have been continuously addressed under the UNFCCC. In addition the Kyoto Protocol also called for limiting and reducing emissions of greenhouse gas emissions not controlled by the Montreal Protocol from aviation and marine bunker fuels, working through the ICAO and the IMO, respectively. The IPCC Guidelines for the preparation of greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories and the UNFCCC reporting guidelines on annual inventories outline that emissions from international aviation and maritime transport (also known as international bunker fuel emissions) should be calculated as part of the national GHG inventories of Parties, but should be excluded from national totals and reported separately”.

Climate Action Tracker has recently assessed the climate policy of ICAO and IMO and says “while ICAO has a goal of ‘carbon neutral growth from 2020’, CORSIA, the scheme it has set up to achieve it, is unlikely to do so: it will probably cover less than half of international aviation emissions between now and 2035 and is likely to allow compensation without real emission reductions elsewhere. As global CO₂ emissions would need to reduce to net zero by 2050 to be in line with the 1.5°C temperature limit, aviation would have to make an equivalent contribution. However, CORSIA’s expected emissions unit prices are unlikely to trigger investments in measures to reduce CO₂ emissions from international aviation towards zero by 2050, and provide little or no incentive to roll out innovative zero carbon technology”.

Concerning the international shipping industry, the Climate Action Tracker states: “There is tremendous potential for the international shipping industry to decarbonise completely and reach zero emissions by 2050, yet there is very little sign of this sector moving anywhere near fast enough, and certainly nowhere near a Paris Agreement pathway”.

Despite strong criticism by NGOs and other stakeholders year after year, ICAO and IMO have not acted to reduce emissions. The director of Transport and Environment said in 2020 that T&E does not believe any more that the IMO is able to develop policies for effective reduction of GHGs. Wendel Trio, director of CAN Europe, explained recently that it was the view of CAN that all economic sectors must reduce GHGs at the same rate, which means that air and sea transport must reduce GHG emissions by at least 65% by 2030 and to net-zero by 2040 in the EU. The EU is now finally acting and proposes to develop EU policies to regulate GHG emissions from shipping with economic instruments. Investment decisions for ships with alternative fuels must be made now because new ships have a life expectancy of about 30 years.


Reinhold Pape

In this issue


The clock is ticking to achieve the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. To be clear right from the start: this goal deserves every effort that mankind can pull off. In the name of realism, this is the goal we must focus on now, given the current level of progress in reducing greenhouse gases. However, damage to marine ecosystems will not be avoided even if we reach this goal1. In fact, damage already occurs at current levels of warming, as evidenced by the bleaching of coral reefs2. This may be an inconvenient truth when our current goal is 1.5°C.

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