figueres5_Zhang PengLightRocket via Getty Images_shipping emissions Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

Getting to Low-Carbon High Seas

The global shipping industry's annual greenhouse-gas emissions total more than one billion tons, making it a critical front in the fight against climate change. But whether the sector's emissions will shrink or grow over the next decade will depend largely on what governments decide in the next few months.

NEW YORK – This month, delegates from governments around the world are meeting (virtually) for a crucial, albeit under-the-radar, climate summit at the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO). The topic is how to decarbonize the global shipping industry, which accounts for over 80% of world trade and more than one billion tons of greenhouse-gas emissions per year – more than any but the top-five emitting countries.

This massive source of emissions cannot be ignored. Our fossil-fuel addiction is having a disastrous impact on the planet, particularly on our oceans. Increased heat and acidity, melting sea ice, and decreasing oxygen levels are wiping out coral reefs, threatening marine life, and undermining the ocean’s ability to function as a key ecosystem and climate regulator. Considering that every second breath we take comes from the ocean, our own health is directly linked to that of this natural system.

Scientists warn that we have just ten years at most to take the steps needed to keep global warming within 1.5 ºC of pre-industrial levels, and thus to avert significant risks to nature and humanity. Yet, despite a surge in public concern about the climate crisis, the IMO’s meetings still attract barely a flicker of media attention. Most people have no idea who is representing their country in these talks, much less whether their governments are supporting or opposing stronger climate standards.

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