Major retailers, including Amazon and Ikea, are beginning to clean up their shipping pollution. A group of companies pledged yesterday that by 2040, they’ll only contract ships using zero-carbon fuels to move their goods. Both Ikea and Amazon were among the 15 companies responsible for the most maritime import pollution in 2019, according to one recent analysis.
Joining Amazon and Ikea in the commitment are Unilever, Michelin, and clothing retailer Inditex, which owns Zara and other brands. German retailer Tchibo, Patagonia, sports gear company Brooks Running, and FrogBikes are part of the deal, too.
The aim is to leave behind heavy fuel oil in favor of alternatives that don’t release planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions. But there will still be plenty of hurdles ahead to rein in shipping pollution.
“This will be a catalyzing force and a game-changer for the industry to really push for the decarbonization of the sector,” says Kendra Ulrich, shipping campaigns director at the environmental nonprofit Stand.earth, which was one of the authors of the 2019 import pollution report.
Before arriving at our doorsteps or on store shelves, nearly all the goods we buy are moved by ship around the world. As a result, the maritime shipping industry is responsible for about 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The sector also produces between 10 to 15 percent of sulfur oxide and nitrous oxide emissions, pollutants linked to respiratory problems and other health risks.
Environmental activists, portside communities, and workers have demanded for years that Amazon and other big-box brands cut down their pollution. Now, they’re starting to see some progress from companies in the form of environmental pledges. Amazon set a goal of becoming carbon neutral in 2040, a deadline for it to stop releasing more CO2 than it can capture or offset. By 2030, Ikea plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent and invest in projects intended to draw down the rest of its CO2 emissions.
Those goals, in turn, have pushed shipping giants to act more swiftly on climate change. Maersk announced in February that it would speed up construction — by seven years — of the first large cargo ship to run on carbon-neutral fuels. About half of Maersk’s largest customers had new carbon-cutting targets, the company said when it made the announcement.
There’s no time to waste, Ulrich says. Her organization is pushing companies to switch to zero-emission ships this decade — not 2040, as Amazon, Ikea, and the other retailers have just pledged. She also wants to see clear benchmarks to measure progress in the nearer term.
“We are faced with a climate crisis now, and we need to see action now,” she says. On top of that, she says, companies should also make targets to tackle pollutants other than carbon dioxide.
Shipping is considered one of the industries that’s hardest to decarbonize. Batteries so far have only been able to store enough juice to power short boat trips, but container vessels take much longer journeys. Some advocates like Ulrich are optimistic that hydrogen fuel cells might be an option for the shipping industry. Maersk, meanwhile, is looking into methanol and ammonia as replacement fuels. But the production of alternatives like hydrogen, methanol, and ammonia typically still relies on fossil fuels. That’s a problem that a broader transition to clean energy will need to fix.