Maersk pledges to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2050

Richard Milne

World’s largest container shipping group throws down challenge to industry

The world’s largest container shipping company has pledged to cut net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, challenging an industry that is both one of the main transporters of global trade and one of the biggest polluters to come up with radical solutions in the next decade.

 AP Moller Maersk, the Danish group that transports nearly one in five seaborne containers, said it needed its entire supply chain from engine makers and shipbuilders to new technology providers to come up with carbon-free ships by 2030 to meet the goal.

 “We will have to abandon fossil fuels. We will have to find a different type of fuel or a different way to power our assets. This is not just another cost-cutting exercise. It’s far from that. It’s an existential exercise, where we as a company need to set ourselves apart,” Soren Toft, Maersk’s chief operating officer, told the Financial Times.

 Maersk’s target, although distant, is one of the most ambitious from a global industrial group promising to end carbon emissions altogether. Container ships carry about 80 per cent of global trade and currently use bunker fuel, a residue from crude oil that is cheaper but dirtier than petrol and diesel, which means they contribute about 3 per cent of the world’s emissions.

 Maersk is not pushing one technology — ideas such as biofuels, hydrogen, electricity or even wind or solar power have been mooted — but is stressing the urgency as most vessels have a life of 20-25 years, meaning that viable solutions need to be found soon.

“To reach the target by 2050, in the next 10 years we need some big breakthroughs,” Mr Toft said.

One challenge will be that container ships often need to travel several thousand kilometres at a stretch, appearing to rule out solutions open to other types of transport such as electric cars and lorries. 

Maersk currently emits about 36m tonnes of CO2 equivalent in greenhouse gases, with container ships accounting for about 98 per cent of the group total. Mr Toft said the company had been able to keep emissions stable for a decade despite significant growth, meaning that on a per container basis carbon emissions had fallen by 46 per cent since 2007. 

Container shipping has long been in the sights of environmentalists due to the dirty nature of bunker fuel but the industry has often resisted more radical change, arguing it could disrupt global trade or make it more expensive. Regulations coming in 2020 will cut the high levels of sulphur in bunker fuel and the International Maritime Organization, the UN regulator, has agreed that emissions should be cut in half by 2050 but Mr Toft and others argue that more is needed. 

“We’ve been able to absorb the last 10 years’ growth without adding to CO2 emissions. It’s a good starting point but it’s not enough . . . Not just governments and countries, but also companies and industries need to make a change. The maritime industry and Maersk need to take their responsibility,” he added.

Maersk is aiming to meet its target without buying carbon offsets. “If you buy offsets, you are basically delaying the pain. What you are doing is buying yourself an excuse and hoping that the money you pay goes to good uses, but you are not tackling the issue at its core,” Mr Toft said.