business corporate responsibility transport

Can Maersk go carbon neutral?

Maersk are the world’s biggest shipping company. Based out of Denmark, the company shifts almost one in five containers in global trade. If shipping is to pull its weight in the climate change department, it will have to start with them.

And it has. Maersk has pioneered a variety of solutions including building larger and more efficient ships to maximise economies of scale. Sailing speeds have slowed in the last decade as this is one of the easiest ways to reduce carbon emissions. To make up the time, port processes have been streamlined and networks optimised. Ships run smart monitoring systems that track fuel use, looking for marginal gains. For example, fuel use analysis shows it’s more efficient to aim for constant power than constant speed, keeping engines at a steady output and letting speed vary with sea conditions. It’s a fairly simple idea, and easy for captains to implement once it’s been pointed out.

Using these sorts of techniques, Maersk’s overall carbon emissions per container fell by 46% between 2007 and 2017.

However, after the Paris Agreement, shipping companies in Denmark commissioned a report into the industry and what it would need to do to comply. The result was clear: efficiency would not be enough. Ships would need to run on alternative power sources. As the company’s chief operating office told the Financial Times, “we will have to abandon fossil fuels.”

Last week, at the start of this year’s climate talks, Maersk announced a new target. It will aim to be carbon neutral by 2050. Moving container shipping off fossil fuels is possible – here are some alternatives – but doing it commercially will take major investment. The company knows it can’t do it alone, and that it will take partnerships across its supply chain to make it work – including shipbuilders, port authorities, engine manufacturers and battery companies. Since Maersk is such a big player, they will have to listen, making it a significant moment of leadership in the shipping world.

It’s also worth noting that Maersk’s commitment goes further than the deal negotiated by the International Maritime Organisation recently. That calls for a 50% cut in shipping emissions by 2050, so Maersk are doubling down on the industry standard.

It won’t be easy, but they have a good track record. Their initial 2020 target was for a 25% carbon reduction. When that was met with years to spare, they raised it to 40% by 2020, and then to 60%. Carbon neutrality is a different sort of challenge, but they’re already demonstrating what’s possible.

Before we get carried away, it’s important to say that this is Maersk’s shipping business. They also operate in oil and gas, particularly in the North Sea. While they are part of the solution on shipping, they continue to be part of the problem too. That part of the business shouldn’t be held to a different standard, and they ought to divest out of fossil fuels and leave that North Sea oil where it belongs. That would really put them on the map as a 21st century company, and perhaps I’ll be reporting on that the next time I write about the company.


  1. Shipping is an obvious application for steam technology. Because condensing systems are possible, efficiency is higher than for non-condensing locomotives.

    Anything that will burn can be used as fuel, which is the ultimate in flexibility.

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