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Maritime emissions and climate change (I/II): navigating the transport challenge

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By Diego Balverde

· 3 min read

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), starting in 2020, began advocating for lower sulfur content in fuel. Despite the industry often downplaying its emissions to a mere 3%, transport emissions play a far more significant role than acknowledged.

The problem

Maritime transport is struggling to find viable solutions for decarbonization. The key issue lies in the emissions from logistics, impacting each product transported. Industries often overlook emission measurements in Scopes 1 and 2, yet the true challenge lies in Scope 3, which accounts for external processes like logistics.

Excessive pollution is a result of using heavy or intermediate fuels, which are major pollutants. Commitments to reduce emissions intensified during COP26 after post-COVID exports began. While the IMO explored low sulfur fuels like VLSFO and emission scrubbers, these measures barely made a dent in the escalating CO2 emissions per kilogram transported.

Lack of knowledge and incorrect solutions

Many experts fail to thoroughly understand the maritime industry, leading to underestimations. For instance, the commonly cited figure that the maritime industry contributes to only 3% of emissions is misleading. The real calculation involves considering emissions during manufacturing, maritime transport fuel consumption, average shipping durations, and the resultant CO2 emissions per journey.

The solutions

To address the emissions, we must:

  • Parameterize: Determine the emissions produced by a product at its source.
  • Monitor: Recognize that logistics emissions can more than double the emissions of the product itself.
  • Result: Understand the emissions burden the maritime industry must address.
  • Solution: Promote the use of Guarantee of Origin (GO) standard products for ships.

These solutions will be further explored in the second part of this series.

The repercussions of the IMO's missteps

This issue is widely discussed in international trade, especially in the bunkering sector. The efficacy of the IMO's proposals remains a matter of debate.

The IMO operates under UN guidelines, which lack a distinct international trade focus. Every shipment has an emissions footprint. When transport amplifies a product's emissions, it may breach established trade regulations. Despite the IMO's ambitious claims, they often miss the mark on understanding their industry's emissions impact.

Many believe the maritime industry needs to track applications on consignment. Although they may make promises, delivering on them is a different story.

The key is to simplify the solution. Every shipped product has an associated emissions load. If this load can be accurately calculated and then labeled on products, industries can be held accountable.

Amazon measures the emissions footprint of products and accounts for the additional emissions from maritime transport. Their approach is intermodalism, which offers benefits like cost savings, punctuality, and reduced emissions.


The only viable solution is to invest in direct decarbonization, focusing on transport fuel, and incorporate intermodalism as a crucial strategy to meet collective goals.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Dr. Diego Balverde is an Economist at the European Central Bank and has extensive experience in climate finance. He is currently also an Advisory Member of the Council of Foreign Trade at The World Bank. Diego is very active on the international sustainability stage having attended COP27 as a Circular economy for Climate Change specialist and will also be attending the G20 Conference in India as part of the Energy, Sustainability and Climate Task Force. Diego holds a PhD in Foreign trade from Chapman University and an MBA degree from Cambridge Judge Business School.

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