22 countries agreed to establish green shipping routes. That’s big news

Container ships earlier this month at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif. The United States and 21 other countries have agreed to open green shipping corridors to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)
Container ships earlier this month at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif. The United States and 21 other countries have agreed to open green shipping corridors to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)

COP26 didn’t produce the big breakthroughs for climate change that many had hoped. Yet for maritime shipping, the U.N. Climate Change Conference was a major success.

The United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France and others — 22 countries in all — signed the Clydebank Declaration for Green Shipping Corridors, a new framework for reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from shipping. The signatories commit to establishing “zero-emission maritime routes” for ships using clean marine fuels such as methanol or ammonia.

They plan to establish six of these green corridors by 2025 and scale up further by “supporting the establishment of more routes, longer routes and/or having more ships on the same routes,” according to the declaration. My research helps explain why the initiative may not only help build clean maritime industries, but also build support for more ambitious climate policies in shipping.

When it comes to green shipping, there’s a lot of politics involved — and the Clydebank declaration is far from perfect. The declaration is not a binding treaty, and it lacks compliance mechanisms and clear investment and energy-reduction targets.

Yet environmental organizations view this announcement as a major milestone for the decarbonization of the maritime industry. Dan Hubbell of Ocean Conservancy notes that the declaration “will help pave the way for eliminating emissions from ports and shipping here in the U.S. and internationally.”

Shipping is a major source of emissions

As I explained here at The Monkey Cage in August, maritime shipping is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Each year, the sector emits over 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The figure rivals the emissions of Germany, the world’s sixth-largest emitter by country. Reducing shipping emissions is crucial to implement the 2015 Paris climate agreement and to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

The Clydebank declaration charts a pathway for the green-energy transition in maritime shipping. The main idea here is to support the development of clean fuels and to mitigate the risks of “first movers” in renewable technologies.

The signatory countries will cooperate with the marine industry to invest in clean port infrastructure and to set up comprehensive programs for green shipping activities. They will also develop regulatory frameworks and incentives to mobilize demand for zero-emission vessels on specific routes. This includes the Asia-Europe container route, which currently generates more emissions than any other shipping route. The hope is that green shipping corridors will then create spillover effects and help catalyze the decarbonization of global maritime supply chains.

How policymakers learned from past failures

Countries have tried before to cut shipping emissions by imposing a carbon tax and fuel efficiency standards on the industry. This has been the task of the International Maritime Organization, or IMO, the United Nations agency responsible for regulating shipping.

But the IMO is dominated by shipping associations and countries with strong shipping interests — parties generally opposed to climate regulations that increase shipping costs. This includes major ship-owning countries like Greece and Japan, countries that offer flags of convenience such as Panama and Liberia, and middle-income countries such as Russia, China and Brazil, which worry that tighter environmental regulations will increase their shipping costs. These countries, a recent investigation has shown, have colluded with the maritime industry to block effective climate change regulations at the IMO.

Policymakers have learned from this experience. With the Clydebank declaration, they’re taking a different approach to reduce maritime emissions. The Clydebank declaration does not rely on the IMO, nor does it impose punitive measures that increase shipping costs, such as a global carbon tax.

Instead, the Clydebank countries intend to provide positive incentives — using industrial policies and public-private partnerships — to encourage the adaptation of green fuels and technologies. Their core aim is to develop clean marine industries and to build winning coalitions for policies that address climate change in shipping.

A key member of this green shipping coalition is Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company. Maersk recently ordered eight new zero-carbon vessels and set up a new research center on zero-carbon technologies. Maersk’s support for the idea of green shipping corridors helped lead to the Clydebank declaration at COP26. And Japan and Norway — countries with large fleets that have opposed climate regulations at the IMO — also signed on to the Clydebank declaration and announced their intention to build clean marine industries.

Research suggests that providing positive incentives is vital to shore up political support for more ambitious climate policies, such as a global maritime carbon tax.

The European Union is already planning to include shipping in its Emissions Trading System. And a group of 50 climate vulnerable nations — a major voting block at the IMO — now backs a “mandatory GHG [greenhouse gas] levy on international shipping.”

Ambiguity can mean greater flexibility

The Clydebank declaration leaves a lot of things out. For example, it doesn’t explain which fuels and technologies the signatories intend to support, or how they plan to develop and enforce green shipping standards. Climate activists warn that the Clydebank framework “leaves room for delay tactics and fossil fuel loopholes.”

But this ambiguity also gives countries the flexibility to experiment with policies and targeted decarbonization strategies. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg noted that the U.S. government intends to promote the Clydebank declaration through “the Quad,” a U.S.-led coalition with Japan, Australia and India. The plan, he said, was to establish “at least two low and zero emission shipping corridors for Quad countries in the Indo-Pacific.” The United States could also use funds from its new infrastructure bill, which contains $150 billion for clean-energy development, to invest in zero-emission shipping projects.

Much needs to be done to build green shipping corridors and develop clean marine fuels, technologies and infrastructure. The Clydebank declaration is only the first of many milestones in shipping’s green-energy transition.

Jan Stockbruegger is a Dean’s Faculty Fellow at Brown University’s Department of Political Science and an affiliate at the Climate Solution Lab at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

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