MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This summer, we are exploring what it takes to dramatically reduce global carbon emissions, which is a must if we want to slow climate change. Today and tomorrow, we are focusing on a fuel-guzzling industry, shipping.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The shipping giant Maersk has sent goods around the world since the age of steamships. Now the company wants to usher in a new era with carbon-neutral ships. The audacious goal raises a question, how do you save the planet without hurting your business' bottom line? NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Every 15 minutes, a Maersk ship arrives at a port somewhere in the world. Some of those ships are as long as the Empire State Building is tall. They're piled with containers packed with everything from smartphones to soybeans to sneakers.
Container ships like these are critical to the global economy, but they're major contributors to climate change. They burn oil and release a lot of carbon. The Danish shipping giant wants that to change, vowing to go carbon-free by 2050. That's ambitious.
ALISDAIR PETTIGREW: The technology to get there doesn't yet exist.
DOMONOSKE: Alisdair Pettigrew is a marine energy consultant. Electric cars are one thing, but you can't send a giant ship around the world on batteries, biofuels. Right now, none of it does the trick.
PETTIGREW: There are millionaires that are going to be made coming up with the right solutions. But they're not there yet.
DOMONOSKE: Ole Jakobsen runs fleet technology for Maersk. He says that's the whole point of a pledge like this.
OLE GRAA JAKOBSEN: We want to accelerate the development of solutions of getting there and not just sitting on the fence and waiting for somebody doing something.
DOMONOSKE: This will be expensive.
JAKOBSEN: It will require investment.
DOMONOSKE: Maersk is an industry leader on the environment. It has cut emissions dramatically already. So how can it justify spending more to figure out how to get to zero? One idea - maybe you could charge more if you go carbon-free. But Jakobsen says Maersk is not so naive to think that customers will pay a lot more for carbon-free shipping.
Or maybe whatever the engineers come up with will be cheaper than oil eventually. Shipping consultant Lars Jensen says it could happen, even though right now it's very hard to beat oil on price.
LARS JENSEN: I am not necessarily making a prediction that oil will suddenly become fantastically expensive. I am more making the argument that alternative energy sources over time will become fantastically inexpensive.
DOMONOSKE: This happened to power plants, where the cost of wind and solar has plummeted. That doesn't help Maersk, but maybe a similar transformation will hit shipping.
Or there's a third possibility, government action. The whole world could agree to charge high fees for burning fossil fuels. If that happens, a company that starts going carbon-neutral now will be ahead of the game while their competitors struggle to adapt.
Helen Dewhurst is an analyst with Bloomberg. She points out that the IMO, which regulates the global shipping industry, is taking serious action on air quality, much to some companies' surprise.
HELEN DEWHURST: They didn't think that the IMO would have the backbone to do it, and they did.
DOMONOSKE: But will this happen for carbon emissions? Many analysts are skeptical, given the recent history of climate inaction. So why place a bet that the world will change its course? Ned Molloy is a shipping consultant who focuses on regulations. He says, consider what happens if the world doesn't act on climate change.
NED MOLLOY: There may not be much of a basis for a global container shipping industry to exist.
DOMONOSKE: We're already seeing more extreme weather at ports. If floods and droughts close the Panama Canal and the world economy is in upheaval, shipping companies would be in trouble no matter what.
MOLLOY: I've been trying to think of it something like Pascal's wager.
DOMONOSKE: Blaise Pascal was a 17th century mathematician, physicist and theologian. His famous wager was about the afterlife. He said, if you aren't sure about the whole religion thing, you should assume God is real. If you're right, you go to heaven. If you're wrong and there is no God, you're just dead either way, so what does it really matter? Deciding whether to invest in going zero-carbon - it's a business calculation, but the bottom line can get existential.
Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
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