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The decarbonising debate

The decarbonising debate

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Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of environment and energy at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, muses on what she took away from this week’s Ambition 1.5 degree C Summit at COP23 in Bonn.

This year I was fortunate enough to be invited to deliver the keynote speech at the Ambition 1.5 degree C Summit at COP23 in Bonn.

This was a real privilege, an opportunity to showcase the institution as a global leader in decarbonisation as well as influencing an industry that has been traditionally difficult when it comes to behavioural change.

The Ambition 1.5oC Summit was the brainchild of a collective of like-minded members of the global shipping industry who aimed to generate commitments from delegates that would lead the industry towards emissions reduction and ultimately zero net carbon to help meet the Paris Agreement. The summit itself attracted around 150 members of the global shipping industry, was held on a ship on the Rhine and overseen by members of the UNFCCC.

Shipping accounts for more than 80% of global trade in physical units and self-identifies as the second dirtiest industry globally – 2% of global emissions from fuel combustion come from ships. Throughout the summit I heard a clear desire for this industry to change technologies, business and financial models as well as a push for new policies and regulations to provide the industry with a clear message about what they need to deliver.

It was easy when listening to the delegates to draw parallels with the power industry in the UK, where bold policies have led to innovations in cleaner power supply and financial instruments have reduced coal use and cut the cost of renewables. Even the types of technologies that the shipping industry are considering are similar to the power and transport sectors. I heard discussions about the use of gas with on-board carbon capture and storage, the use of wind power and batteries, dual fuel and hybrid combustion technologies as well as hydrogen fuels and efficiency technologies like slow steaming -slowing the speed of the ship to save fuel.

Beyond these buoyant and positive discussions there was a darker underlying theme causing inertia and preventing action being taken by shipping to reduce its emissions. This was that many companies felt that they could not takes steps to decarbonise if they did not know what regulations would look like, regulations that do not yet exist and may not for several years. This seems have to paralysed the industry by fear. Ultimately taking action is based on the risks to finance and not the risks presented by climate change.

Building ships resilient to future regulation that can meet 1.5oC needs to begin now, a ship’s lifespan is around 30 years. The use of modularity in ship building to allow for updated technologies to be added to existing fleets is an option that the industry should consider as part of business plans and is a financial risk.

In the end many commitments were made by delegates from promises to convert ships as demonstrators to putting forward policy suggestions to the leviathan that is the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for a fuel/CO2 tax levy to reductions in emissions from the shipping industry of 50% of 2008 level in 2035 to 70% reduction by 2050/60.

These are highly ambitious targets and shipping is in a good starting place, there are a few targets in energy efficiency and sulphur reductions already in place and there is the potential for the industry to learn from the experiences of the power and transport sectors. My experience of submerging myself in a new industry for a day is that there is a willingness to change behaviour, but here the grassroots movement must shift the views of the IMO to new paradigm and support them on that journey.

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