HomeLow carbon futureWhy is the UK, a leading maritime nation, so weak on shipping and climate?

Why is the UK, a leading maritime nation, so weak on shipping and climate?

This post is by Jonathan Hood, sustainable shipping manager, UK, at Transport & Environment.

The government isn’t acting fast enough to decarbonise shipping. It is essential to the economy, transporting 95 per cent of the UK’s global trade, providing over one million jobs and contributing almost £50 billion a year. It also relies almost entirely on fossil fuels and is something of a Cinderella of climate policy: unloved and neglected. What few policies there are are weak, underfunded or delayed. If the UK is to meet net zero, this has got to change, and fast.

At Transport & Environment we’ve produced new analysis showing that, in 2021, UK shipping produced around 22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, which was 16 per cent of UK transport greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the same year. Around a fifth of that came from shipping between UK ports (known as domestic shipping). The rest was from the UK’s international shipping activities.

Net zero means eliminating all shipping GHG emissions by 2050 and, in response to the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the government has included them in its sixth carbon budget from 2033.

We should be developing alternatives to fossil fuels
That’s all well and good, but accepting responsibility for emissions doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be regulated or eliminated. For this, clear policies and binding targets are needed. And at present, these are in short supply.

Shipping is considered “difficult to decarbonise”, with alternatives to fossil fuels at an early stage of development. New and innovative technologies have the potential to transform the industry to sustainable, zero emission operation. These include wind power and battery electric systems, as well as alternative fuels such as green hydrogen and synthetic, hydrogen-based fuels. All of which can be produced in the UK.

Although the government hasn’t set out how it plans to eliminate UK shipping emissions, it supports an emissions reduction pathway compatible with the goals of the Paris climate agreement – called the Science-Based Targets initiative, or SBTi – at the International Maritime Organization (IMO). If this is applied to UK shipping, as shown below, emissions would need to decline by more than a third by 2030. That’s less than seven years away.

This monumental challenge can only be met by a visionary policy and regulatory framework. The trouble is, the UK doesn’t have such a framework. It isn’t even proposing one. And, as the EU forges ahead with regulation to price its shipping emissions and support cleaner marine fuels, the UK falls further and further behind.

Four cases of inadequate government action
Of the provisions and commitments the government has made, many have either been postponed, or are too weak to be effective. Here are four examples where there hasn’t been enough action:

  1. The government has left out most of the UK’s shipping emissions from work towards an emissions reduction plan. It has outsourced responsibility for the UK’s international shipping emissions – 80 per cent of the total – to the ineffective IMO which has no framework to regulate and eliminate emissions. The UK’s attempt to discharge its obligation in this way is an abdication of its legal responsibility. The EU is regulating its international emissions and the UK should do the same, as the CCC has said.


  1. Despite the pressing need for binding emissions reduction targets for the sector, the expected update to the Clean Maritime Plan, the government’s flagship strategy for decarbonising shipping, will only contain indicative targets, and only for domestic shipping. The industry needs certainty. This won’t provide it.


  1. The UK Emissions Trading Scheme, if expanded to UK shipping as currently proposed, would exclude all the UK’s international emissions and around half of domestic, about 90 per cent of the total. This would mean the UK losing out on about £1.6 billion a year in potential revenue.


  1. Planned consultations on shore side electricity and phasing out polluting vessels in the UK have been postponed. Shore side electricity is vital for improving air quality in UK ports as it allows ship engines to be switched off when they’re at berth, protecting the health of dockworkers and people who live and work near ports. There’s no indication when these consultations will now take place.

The government is failing the UK’s shipping sector and, in the process, putting its legally binding climate change obligations at risk. As recently as 2019, its vision was to go “faster than other countries and faster than international standards” in driving zero emission shipping in the UK. But maybe by “faster” they actually meant “slower”.

The UK’s shipping sector can get to net zero and, in doing so, elevate the UK to be a genuine world leader on clean shipping. But that opportunity has nearly passed: worryingly, the recent review of the Net Zero Strategy increased ambition on decarbonisation for other UK transport sectors but said nothing new on shipping.

We need full steam ahead, right now. That means regulating all UK shipping emissions with binding targets, pricing shipping emissions effectively to drive major investment in clean technologies, creating a UK market for zero emission fuels and the vessels to use them, and requiring zero emission berths in UK ports. These would be a start, and the forthcoming new version of the Clean Maritime Plan is the perfect place to set them out.

According to the UK Transport Committee’s recent review of the government’s long term strategy, “the UK must have a defined plan for decarbonising the maritime sector with clear, measurable targets for both home and abroad”. Sound advice.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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