The UN agency that oversees shipping, the International Maritime Organization, adopted its first-ever deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions last week. On Friday, the IMO, which has more than 170 member nations, announced that it would oversee efforts by shipping companies to reduce their emissions by at least 50 percent from 2008 levels by 2050.

This is an important milestone. A significant percentage of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change don’t come from any individual country, and are thus outside of what the Paris Agreement is designed to address. Airline emissions, for example, account for roughly 2 percent of the world’s emissions. That industry reached a plan to reduce emissions two years ago. The shipping emissions covered by this month’s IMO agreement account for another 2-3 percent, roughly on par with Germany’s emissions.

That said, the agreement isn’t as strong as many and hoped it would be. The agreement, environmental groups warn, does not mesh with the U.N. goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to keep the world within 2 degrees Celsius of warming. The European Union had called for a plan to reduce emissions by at least 70 percent, which would have been in line with the 2-degree target. Some major shipping companies also said they wanted a deal that went further; John Kornerup, head of sustainability for the Danish company Maersk, told the Financial Times that his company had been hoping for an agreement that laid out a plan for “full decarbinisation.”

In a joint statement, Marshall Islands environment minister David Paul and Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief and current head of the Mission 2020 initiative, said the deal, despite falling short of what vulnerable nations had pushed for during negotiations, “keeps alive the possibility to keep global temperature increases within the limits set by the Paris Agreement.”

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia were the most prominent dissenting voices during negotiations, but were joined by Brazil, India, Iran and the Philippines in arguing that the deal’s cap on emissions presented problems. The U.S., in particular, claimed the agreement went too far and would be harmful to the shipping industry, and expressed “serious concern about how this document was developed and finalized.” The U.S. delegation noted that the U.S. government’s position on the deal was in line with its position to the Paris Agreement.

In order for last week’s agreement to meet its goal, shipping companies will have to redesign their fleets, which depend on traditional, fossil fuel-based sources of energy to travel long distances. These fuels will have to be replaced with renewable options, such as hydrogen or ammonia. Batteries might also offer a solution.

A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) takes a look at some of the pathways the industry might take to decarbonize. “Maximum deployment of currently known technologies could make it possible to reach almost complete decarbonization of maritime shipping by 2035,” the report said. “This reduction equals the annual emissions of approximately 185 coal-fired power plants.”
While liquified natural gas and biofuels, two energy sources that are controversial with environmentalists, could assist in helping fleets shift away from the dirtiest grades of oil, the OECD estimates that, if the industry were to reduce it’s carbon emissions by 80 percent, it would have to rely heavily on hydrogen and ammonia, two fuels that are not currently widely in use and would require more research before they can be scaled up.

And that — encouraging shipping companies to more aggressively explore how they can transition to cleaner fuels — is perhaps the primary victory that environmentalists see in the agreement. “The target falls short on ambition,” said Aoife O’Leary, a Legal Analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund, “but should be sufficient to drive policy development and consequently investment in clean fuels and technology.”

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