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Amazon, Unilever join pledge to use zero-emission cargo ships by 2040

The market for zero-emission shipping has its first big international customers — thanks to commitments from Amazon, Ikea, and Unilever to use only emission free ships by 2040.

The flag that these companies (along with the clothing brand Inditex; the tire maker Michelin; the outdoor apparel company Patagonia; sports company Brooks Running; e-bike manufacturer, Frog Bikes; and the German retail coffee and retail chain, Tchibo) are planting should be a boost for the adoption of tech in one of the hardest industries in the world to decarbonize.

Shipping is responsible for about 1.7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to data from the World Resources Institute cited by The Financial Times.

However, if the goal is to remove oil and gas from industrial processes to keep the world within the 1.5 degree warming band that’s necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, then the shipping industry has to wean itself off of fossil fuels.

It’s an effort that will require billions of dollars in investment to redesign ships and produce new fuels for the industry.

The move should also boost the prospects of startups around the world that are racing to develop zero-emission ships.

These are companies like Boundary Layer Technologies, the Lower carbon Capital-backed developer of hydrofoil container ships that can run on Hydrogen.

The company sits at the intersection between sea and air freight, providing a lower-cost, zero emission option for shipping that the company claims is three-times faster than conventional vessels and four-times cheaper than air freight.

Zero Emission Industries, a startup based in California, is also pursuing hydrogen-powered vessels — starting with passenger barges.

Meanwhile, electric autonomous vessels are set to sail this year in Europe thanks to a pilot program by Yara Marine Technologies. A private company spun out from the world’s first fertilizer manufacturer, Yara Marine is pursuing a number of propulsion options for big ships.

In a partnership with BAR Technologies, a UK-based engineering innovation firm, Yara Marine is exploring using giant sails to power cargo ships as they cross the seven seas.

BAR Technologies is also working on a project with Cargill and Deltamarin Finland to bring its BAR Technologies’ WindWings — large, solid wing sails that measure up to 45 meters in height — to other cargo ships.

Yara is also looking at battery technologies and has launched a the Birkeland as an autonomous, electric vessel to transport cargo between two nordic ports.

In Japan, Asahi Shipping is also testing an electric-powered vessel to supply diesel fuel to vessels along the coast.

And these kinds of innovations need to get to market quickly if they’re going to meet the zero-emission goals set by the United Nations. Industry leaders speaking to the FT said that net-zero ships need to enter the global fleet by 2030.

Under that timeline, hydrogen ships may be the fastest to set sail from international ports, some in the industry said.

No matter the the technology, the kind of demand signal from customers is the propulsion that the industry needs to move forward, according to zero-emission advocates and industry observers.

These kinds of market signals are vital given the scale of investment required to turn the industry around, Ingrid Irigoyen, director of the Aspen Institute Shipping Decarbonization Initiative, told the FT.

“You need bunkering capacity, a steady supply of zero-carbon fuels and the zero-ready ships. Those projects need financing. Underpinning this all is the customer demand,” she said.

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