Shipping's Oil Era Is Coming to an End

For a century, the world’s oceangoing fleet has been powered by crude. The 50,000 ships plowing the high seas consume more than five million barrels every day, not much less than all the aircraft in the sky. One-twentieth of all oil ends up burned in a ship engine. Those days may soon be ending.

That’s because the world’s merchant ships are about to undergo the most profound revolution they’ve seen since the dying days of coal-powered steamships. Rules being quietly hammered out by the International Maritime Organization or IMO (the United Nations body that regulates shipping) are about to change the industry beyond measure.

It would be nice to be able to report this as a victory for climate. New energy technologies for power stations and vehicle engines are the biggest drivers of decarbonization in the world today. That doesn’t look like it’s happening in shipping just yet. Even so, we might be approaching a tipping point.

After decades of resistance, the IMO is finally implementing measures to reduce shipping’s carbon footprint. It wants to cut emissions intensity to 40% below 2008 levels by the end of this decade, with total carbon pollution by 2050 falling to half of 2008’s levels. From the start of 2023, all ships will have to report their emissions and submit plans to improve if they’re underperforming.