Our seas and oceans form over 70 per cent of the planet’s surface and sustain 80 per cent of all life forms on the planet. The earth’s largest ecosystem is the primary source of proteins for more than three billion people, acts as the planet’s largest carbon sink and generates half of the oxygen we breathe. But above all, they sustain several blue economy sectors including maritime transport.

Maritime transport represents over 80 per cent of global goods transportation, moves one third of intra-EU trade, and carries almost 420 million passengers to and from EU ports. It accounts for 9 per cent of EU jobs, 17 per cent of the GVA and 21 per cent of the profits in the EU Blue Economy.

Maritime transport in the Mediterranean is one of the busiest worldwide, handling 20 per cent of global seaborne trade, 10 per cent of world containers and over 200 million passengers. In spite of the still unfolding effects of Brexit and the COVID-19 crisis on the EU maritime transport, this sector is expected to grow both in number of routes and traffic intensity. Malta, which is right in the center of the north-south and east-west routes, will undoubtedly take its fair share of this growth.  The expected growth of sea transport led by a growing global demand will come at an environmental cost if corrective measures are not taken.

The sector’s contribution to rising CO2 emissions, pollution, marine litter, underwater noise, discharging waste at sea, risk of oil spills, and introduction of invasive alien species will increase dramatically by 2050 if sustainability is not mainstreamed into the whole sector.

The EU Green Deal’s objective of 90 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 identifies this sector’s emissions as an issue to be dealt with. In 2018, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) set an objective to reduce absolute GHG emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2050 (compared to 2008). The present lack of agreement and the disruption of negotiations by the pandemic, still leaves an ambition gap between the EGD and the IMO target. But whatever the target, the main challenge for maritime shipping over the current decade is to prepare for and urgently start the path to decarbonisation.

More and cleaner transport alternatives are needed

More and cleaner transport alternatives are needed, and this makes it paramount for the sector to move to a more sustainable and a greener maritime transport by improving energy efficiency of ships and by shifting to alternative fuels to reduce its environmental impact.

Having said that, shipping is the most carbon-efficient means of transport when compared to transport by air or land. In fact international shipping accounts for less than 3 per cent of annual global CO2 emissions and produces less exhaust gas emissions - including nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide - for each tonne transported per kilometre than air or road transport. Consequently, maritime transport can also offer a crucial contribution to decarbonisation by shifting land and air transport to sea if and when appropriate.

In recent years, despite the growth in total fleet tonnage, the increase in bigger vessel size combined with the recycling of less efficient vessels contributed to a limited reduction in CO2 emissions. As more environmentally efficient ships replace older and less efficient ones, further gains can be expected. However, these marginal improvements are not enough to significantly decrease overall carbon-dioxide emissions.

Given the lifetime of vessels, a first wave of zero emission vessels needs to be technologically and commercially verified by 2030, ready to upscale deployment in the following decades.

New generation vessels will undoubtedly demand and rely on a large scale supply and a large-scale uptake of carbon-neutral fuels in order to achieve the 2050 reduction goals. Until such time that this is made possible, there are already on the market a number of bridging solutions that are fuel-flexible.

As part of the EU Green Deal, the Commission also launched its Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy for Europe mostly based on digitalisation, automation, and the use of new technologies. In the not so far away future we will be seeing more sustainable multimodal transport systems for both passengers and freight; more recharging and refuelling infrastructure for zero emission vehicles including ships, boats, and ferries; better equipped ports; the deployment of alternative marine fuels; the production and use of Autonomous and Sustainable Ships and Shipping; and more real-time monitoring of decarbonisation efforts across the blue economy sectors in Europe.

Specifically for the Mediterranean, the Commission is pushing to designate and replicate the success of existing Emission Control Areas. By 2030, this could reduce emissions of SO2 and NOx from international shipping by 80 per cent and 20 per cent respectively.

Ensuring the maritime transport’s contribution to meet the EU’s ambitious target of being the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 depends on all stakeholders of the sector working together. It will depend on all stakeholders embracing and not resisting the urgently needed change. This is one of the biggest challenges that maritime transport has to face. But this is also a great opportunity for the sector to contribute environmentally and to benefit economically at the same time.

Karmenu Vella is a former EU Commissioner

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