Shipping’s dirty secret

“If European shipping were a country, it would be the 8th largest polluter in the bloc, pumping 139 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2018 alone.” Reflecting on her frequent journey to Brussels, Catherine Rowett, Green MEP for the East of England, considers the carbon footprint of the shipping industry.

An image of a container ship
An image of a container ship
Catherine Rowett

When I travel to the European Parliament in Brussels, I never fly, for the same reason that many others choose not to – frequent flying is a disaster for the planet. Instead, I sometimes take the ferry, from Harwich to the Hook of Holland. 

Sailing out from Harwich into the North Sea at night, I can see the lights of countless huge ships heading to and from Felixstowe, the UK’s largest container port, just across the bay. Ships carrying the equivalent of 3.85 million twenty-foot equivalent containers travel in and out of this port each year. The carbon impact of this industry is huge – a new report by the NGO Transport and Environment (T&E) shows that ships carrying goods to and from the UK emitted more CO2 than all the cars in Britain’s 15 largest cities put together. If European shipping were a country, it would be the 8th largest polluter in the bloc, pumping 139 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2018 alone.  

Yet, despite these huge figures, shipping emissions are largely uncontrolled, apart from certain specified emission-controlled areas. Like aviation, shipping emissions are generally discounted from countries’ measurements of their own emissions – so when the UK Government claims that we have had a 44 per cent fall in emissions since 1990, they are discounting the shipping emissions associated with the transport, and ignoring the fact that production costs for the imported goods have been ‘outsourced’ to the country where the production takes place, such as China. This conceals the fact that, in reality, our emissions may have increased and also contributed to increased shipping emissions across the globe. 

In addition, like aviation, shipping receives what is essentially a massive subsidy – up to €24 billion (£20 billion) a year – from European governments, because it is exempt from fuel tax. Yet, unlike aviation, which is subject to the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) – which, though it is currently insufficient, does provide a means to cap emissions – there are currently no measures to impose any similar scheme on shipping emissions. 

The immediate response of some is to say that shipping fuel – kerosene especially – should be taxed. It should, but there is a risk that the shipping industry will use such a tax to claim that they are paying their fair share and have free license to continue polluting as much as they can afford (which is a lot). There is also a risk that shipping companies could use this as an excuse to pass on the cost to consumers. A tax to make the polluter pay is not enough on its own, because it would permit the wealthy to spoil the planet for the poor. 

In order to really tackle shipping emissions, we need a system that imposes a physical limit and not just an economic disincentive on pollution.

The new European Commission president, Ursula Von Der Leyen, has promised to bring shipping into the ETS, which would make it mandatory for shipping operators to monitor, report and verify their emissions. This would be an important first step, making it possible to see which companies are the worst polluters (the Mediterranean Shipping Company, for example is one of Europe’s top ten worst polluters) and thus allow further action to be taken against these companies. 

However, the national governments of Europe’s member states must follow this up and support the introduction of emissions limits, perhaps on a graded scale: lower to start with to allow shipping operators time to adjust, but strict enough to force action and with real bite for the future.