Asia’s Role in the Global Decarbonisation of Shipping

As the public becomes increasingly aware of the environmental issues facing the world today, it has been a challenge for numerous industries to re-evaluate their customs and practices and eliminate those that contribute to environmental degradation, such as the excessive release of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Many research studies have already shown that CO2 is a substantial contributor to air pollution, taking a significant role in the greenhouse effect.

Since 1970, the emissions of CO2 have increased by around 90%, with emissions from industrial processes and fossil fuel combustion contributing 78% of the overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions from 1970 to 2011. One of the industries that emit the most CO2 is the shipping industry. Based on available data, the shipping industry is responsible for about 940 million tonnes of CO2 every year, which is at least 2.5% of the overall CO2 emissions in the world.

For this reason, there is now a strong demand for decarbonisation in the shipping industry from governments, international organisations, and the general public. In Asia, decarbonisation has been a priority for many countries, most of which have already set long-term targets for decarbonising their economies. This article delves deeper into what maritime decarbonisation means, its importance, and how it is being explicitly implemented in Asian countries.

What is Maritime Decarbonisation?

The term “maritime decarbonisation” basically refers to the process of decreasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the global maritime industry, with an overall objective of putting the industry on a pathway that restricts the rise of global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. At present, the maritime industry is at the beginning of a once-in-a-century energy transition as it finds ways to decarbonise fast by using optimisation tools, efficiency technologies, and low-carbon fuels.

Here are some maritime activity areas that help facilitate decarbonisation in the shipping industry:

  • Hybridisation and All-Electric

The majority of the non-fossil fuel engine propulsion systems that are being taken into consideration by the maritime industry are anchored on an electrified powertrain instead of a mechanical one. These electric-based powertrains can be a means of helping to future-proof vessels since new technologies are usually introduced over the operating life of a ship. Furthermore, incorporating hybrid technology into marine engines may offset fuel consumption and minimise emissions.

  • Optimisation and Energy Efficiency

The main concern of energy efficiency is to get the most out of fuel inputs by lessening losses in conversion. In converting the chemical energy in a fuel into mechanical energy to facilitate propulsion, enormous energy losses are naturally involved along the way, which presents opportunities for enhancement. Among the major energy efficiency enhancements that can be made to ship machinery are through the optimisation of ship equipment and auxiliary machinery designs, as well as waste heat recovery.

  • Low-Carbon Liquid and Gaseous Fuels

Also called sustainable marine fuels, low-carbon liquid and gaseous fuels are recognised as a pathway for reducing GHG emissions in comparison to petroleum-based marine fuels like heavy fuel oil.

  • Carbon Capture and Exhaust Treatment

Emissions of exhaust gas from maritime transportation are increasingly becoming an environmental concern. As such, existing strategies of emissions treatment will demand renewed research and development (R&D) attention to tackle the new challenges introduced by the emergence of propulsion technologies and novel fuel. 

IMO’s Target in Decarbonising the Shipping Industry

By nature, shipping is a global process. For this reason, global regulation by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is necessary to ensure a level playing field and avoid unfair competition and carbon leakage, obstructing the implementation of a carbon-neutral shipping industry. The role of the IMO is to oversee all aspects of international shipping to ensure that this vital industry remains safe, secure, energy-efficient, and environmentally sound.

Decarbonising the shipping industry is currently one of the main priorities of the IMO. Currently, the IMO targets to curb GHG emissions from shipping by at least 50% of the 2008 levels by 2050. However, IMO’s decarbonisation targets are slow and inadequate for many governments and private sectors. There is a need for the IMO to scale up its decarbonisation targets in the face of worsening environmental issues.

The shipping industry is responsible for around 3% of global GHG emissions. Since it transports approximately 90% of global trade, it is impossible for other sectors to reach net-zero emissions targets unless there is decarbonisation in shipping. For many experts, the IMO should see to it that the industry aims for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The IMO member states must promptly act in implementing the necessary transition and in sending a clear message that the global maritime community is 100% committed to decarbonising shipping.

Asia’s Role in Maritime Decarbonisation 

Asia is home to some of the world’s busiest ports, sea lanes, shipyards, and shipping companies. Because of this, countries in Asia are considered to play a crucial role in decarbonising the maritime industry. 

  • Leading Maritime Asian Countries and Their Present Efforts 

Although leading maritime Asian countries like China, Japan, and South Korea are currently working together with the IMO on global solutions, they also have their own decarbonisation strategies that are likely to impact the sector in the near future.

In China, domestic emissions control areas (ECAs) were designated as early as 2015, with a gradual implementation of requirements that cover emissions of sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen (NOx) air pollutants from ships. In 2020, the Chinese government also announced the country’s ambitious plans to become carbon-neutral by 2060. This was followed up with the “Action Plan for Carbon Dioxide Peaking Before 2030,” which was released in October 2021.

With regards to the shipping industry, China has committed itself to work faster in upgrading old ships, developing ships fuelled by LNG and electric power, further promoting the use by ships of shore power while in port, and making extensive efforts to advance the utilisation of green ships along its coastlines and inland waterways.

Similarly, Japan has also announced its plans to reduce its 2030 GHG emissions by 46% from 2013 levels to attain carbon neutrality by 2050. In 2020, the Japanese government, along with some technology partners, introduced the “Roadmap to Zero Emissions from International Shipping,” which is an extensive strategy to achieve IMO decarbonisation targets.

In South Korea, an air quality control programme, which describes certain South Korean ports and areas as ECAs, was introduced in September 2020. Beginning on the first day of September 2020, speed limits were put in place, and vessels at berth or quay needed to adhere to the maximum sulphur limit of 0.1%. Then, from January 1, 2022, every vessel that operates within the ECAs will have to follow the speed limits and sulphur limits. While the programme is not yet applicable directly to GHGs, it nonetheless builds a framework for future action.

  • Southeast Asia and The Challenges It Faces in Implementing Maritime Decarbonisation

In Southeast Asia, shipping decarbonisation has also been a focus of numerous international talks. The majority of Southeast Asian countries have already committed to decarbonising their economies by 2050 and have published national energy transition frameworks. Historically, Southeast Asia is among the world’s lowest GHG-emitting regions.

From 1990 to 2019, Southeast Asia’s contribution to global GHG emissions was only below 7%. However, as the region continuously experiences economic growth and a high population, its claim to being one of the lowest emitters of GHG in the world will no longer be true. Based on recent projections, Southeast Asia’s CO2 emissions per capita will rise by 139% between 2015 and 2040.

For this reason, calls for decarbonisation in the region’s biggest industries, such as the maritime sector, have especially been loud in the past few years. However, despite the commitments of most Southeast Asian countries to promoting decarbonisation efforts, many of them lack concrete implementation strategies, including how to finance the expensive transition from coal.

In fact, among all the countries in the region, Singapore is the only state that is predicted to achieve a successful reduction in emissions in 2030 compared to 2019 levels. According to current projections, Southeast Asia will likely miss its goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 unless its countries’ governments implement more ambitious policies, establish stricter measures to minimise fossil fuel use, provide stronger budget support, and entice much higher levels of investment.


The reduction of GHG emissions should undoubtedly be a global effort in order to achieve success. Countries from all around the world should commit to decarbonising their economies, specifically focusing on industries and sectors that contribute the most emissions, such as the maritime industry. However, because shipping is an essential component of local and international transactions, it would be difficult to make substantial changes to the way the industry operates without incurring significant costs.

For this reason, countries and regions need to work hand in hand to make sure that the decarbonisation of the shipping industry will not be done at the expense of any economies, especially the vulnerable ones. Specifically, in Asia where many of the world’s busiest ports and shipping companies can be found, decarbonisation is a tough goal to achieve without proper funding. Hence, assistance and support from other countries as well as international organisations, are very much needed.

Maritime Fairtrade is an independent digital news platform that provides the most recent news about the maritime industry in Asia. We have a team of knowledgeable industry professionals and writers who provide our readers with in-depth analysis of new trends and extensive coverage of regulatory changes in the industry. Our website serves as a maritime guide in Singapore that helps our readers stay informed about the most pressing issues in the maritime sector. To stay up to date, feel free to visit our website.

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

subscribe maritime fairtrade

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • Event offers and discounts
  • News & key insights of the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on corruption and more