Gower Beach
Environment and Rural Affairs

Meeting net-zero: The decarbonisation of maritime

As we approach autumn, having experienced one of the most challenging spring and summer periods our country has faced since wartime, it is worth pausing to reflect on the essential contribution a number of sectors of industry have made to ‘getting us through’ the pandemic crisis thus far, writes Simon Eardley.

As an island nation, with our economy defined to a large extent by its dynamic coastal communities, the maritime sector has made a significant contribution to the UK’s COVID response. We have kept supply chains open, ensuring access to vital resource across the country including food, fuel and medicines. From seafarers to the many and varied sectors within the industry, such as port operators and logistic companies, to all the professional services that keep maritime functioning properly, maritime has been a most vital link in this exceptional time.

Although the pandemic crisis hasn’t gone away, indeed it may be returning with vengeance, we must look to the future and all the other challenges our country and the rest of the world faces, none more so that climate change and the need to meet the ambitious target of net carbon emissions by 2050 set by the Westminster Government a few years ago. At the same time, this represents an opportunity to develop greater resilience, create jobs and boost economic growth across the UK’s coastal communities. The UK Government’s ‘Comprehensive Spending Review’, to take place in the coming weeks, affords a real opportunity to make inroads into this agenda and deliver positive change across each nation of the United Kingdom. The key is to be as ambitious as possible and to back that ambition up with the resources necessary to realise it!

This ambition and drive sits behind a cross-sector bid into the Autumn Spending Review process which is being driven by industry body, Maritime UK, and is designed to kick-start a world-leading programme to decarbonise the maritime sector. The objectives are clear and far-reaching but not unrealistic. In short, the plan is to:

  • Work with government to help sustain and create high-skilled, well-paid, green jobs: 1.1m jobs are generated by the UK maritime sector, and investment via the Spending Review will unlock a wave of green jobs to help the sector decarbonise as well as ensuring a just transition from jobs reliant on carbon industries to low and zero carbon.
  • Help get the country towards net-zero: Achieving a net-zero maritime sector requires investment now, with the life cycle of a ship being around 25-30 years.
  • Rejuvenate our shipbuilding industry: No country has yet pulled ahead in the zero-emission maritime race. The UK has the skills and manufacturing potential to become a global leader – let’s act fast to secure maximum jobs and economic growth potential.
  • Drive economic development in coastal communities: Growth in the UK maritime sector will unlock significant growth in areas that are essential for the Government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

The bid is centred on plans to replicate the success of the UK’s automotive industry in driving its decarbonisation journey. It therefore replicates the Office for Low Emission Vehicles for the maritime sector, with a government investment of £1bn to kick-start the UK’s maritime decarbonisation programme. This investment, unlocking further private investment, will:

  • Directly create 15,200 jobs and a further 58,400 jobs throughout the supply chain (73,300 total), according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research.
  • Create jobs in all four nations of the United Kingdom, particularly in coastal communities with a tradition of maritime economic activity, including shipbuilding.
  • Set the UK on a course to meet its legal net-zero maritime obligations.
  • Position the UK as the world leader in maritime decarbonisation and help transform the UK into a scientific superpower, by taking advantage of the fast-growing market for clean maritime technologies and fuels.
  • Fund a programme of plug-in grants for vessels and support the roll-out of electric charging in ports.
  • Fund a demonstrator programme to prove the commercial case for low and zero-emission technologies like hydrogen.
  • Fund low Technology Readiness Level technologies to identify innovative and radical solutions to deliver net-zero.
  • Result in carbon savings of up to 82 MtCO2e by 2050 as well as significant associated reductions in air pollutant emissions, generating benefits valued at billions of pounds.

Maritime decarbonisation is an untapped opportunity. The marginal cost of decarbonising maritime is lower than decarbonising other modes because of the greater amount of carbon savings immediately available due to lack of intervention. This means that one pound spent in maritime decarbonisation would deliver greater marginal carbon savings compared to other modes.

Why act now?

Maritime decarbonisation is essential to meet the legislative target of net zero emissions by 2050. It simply cannot be done without it. Transporting freight by water is by far the most carbon-efficient logistics mode for moving goods. As an island nation we are dependent on the sea for 95% of the UK’s import and exports of goods but this huge volume means that in 2018 domestic shipping alone produced more greenhouse gas emissions than rail and buses combined. Action is needed now to support the deployment of low emission vessels and infrastructure to maintain the UK’s vital flows of goods whilst meeting an ambitious trajectory for net-zero goals.

Regulation alone is not going to be sufficient: building on the automotive experience, capital investment in maritime decarbonisation is needed to unlock the industry’s potential and kick-start the transition to zero-emission shipping. Intervention will demonstrate the UK climate leadership ahead of the COP26 summit, to be hosted in the UK in November 2021.

The opportunity clearly exists for the UK to lead this massive agenda. The research capability, skills and innovation in design and technology are second to none in our country. Will we seize the chance to deliver this agenda for the good of the sector? For the jobs and growth opportunity it represents and for wider good it will do for our environment and the climate change crisis? There’s no better time to do so! The question now is whether the government will back and turbocharge this agenda too.

Simon Eardley works as Regional Cluster Development Manager for Maritime UK. Prior to that he held various roles within the Campaigning Department at CCHQ.