The U.S. Is Cleaning Up Its Shipping Sector

The U.S. Is Cleaning Up Its Shipping Sector
path to decarbonization text quote on wooden signpost outdoors in nature during blue hour.

The U.S. has big plans for the decarbonization of its shipping sector in line with the national green transition. When most people think about going green, they may think about shifting from fossil fuel production to renewable alternatives. But many do not consider highly polluting industries, such as manufacturing and transportation. In addition to shifting to electric vehicles, the U.S. government is also looking to make heavy transportation and freight cleaner through electrification, green fuels, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. 

The U.S. Roadmap for Decarbonizing Shipping 

In January 2023, the U.S. Departments of Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the “U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization – A Joint Strategy to Transform Transportation.” 

Under its vision, it states “We must eliminate nearly all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the sector by 2050 and implement a holistic strategy to achieve a future mobility system that is clean, safe, secure, accessible, affordable, and equitable, and provides sustainable transportation options for people and goods.” This roadmap addresses some of the ways that the organizations plan to decarbonize the sector over the coming decades in line with a green transition. 

In the section discussing maritime vessels, the document states that in the U.S. there are around 12 million privately owned recreational boats and 38,000 commercial vessels, such as tugboats, containerships, and ferries, according to recent surveys. Most recreational boats use gasoline, and bigger vessels use an almost equal share of diesel and residual oil. A few use liquified natural gas (LNG). According to the EPA, around half of U.S. marine vessel carbon emissions come from international shipping, around 30% from domestic shipping and 20% from recreational boats. Many U.S. ports also contribute heavily to the sector’s carbon emissions, often disproportionately negatively affecting the communities and environment of poorer areas surrounding the ports. 

Because the largest proportion of carbon emissions comes from international journeys, the decarbonization of the shipping sector will require an intergovernmental approach. In 2021, President Biden pledged to work closely with the International Maritime Organization to achieve this and adopt a new goal of zero emissions in the sector by 2050. However, much more investment is needed to progress research and development in the decarbonization of shipping as the best approach is still unclear. 

The U.S. government will likely need to use a variety of approaches to successfully decarbonize the shipping sector as both maritime vessels and ports contribute greenhouse gas emissions due to a variety of different activities. In addition, vessels have a long fleet turnover time, of around 30 years or above, meaning the understanding of the costs, standards, and requirements is vital for long-term fiscal planning. While some technologies can already be rolled out to support decarbonization, many new technologies or improvements will be seen in the coming decades. Further, while some technologies can be fitted into existing vessels to make them cleaner, another approach is to build entirely new green vessels – something that is not yet possible. 


In May, the EPA announced the first step towards the development of programs that are expected to invest $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in U.S. port infrastructure. The Clean Ports Program will invest $3 billion in technologies aimed at reducing harmful air and climate pollutants across the country’s ports. 

Meanwhile, the Clean Heavy-Duty Vehicle Program will invest a further $1 billion in the reduction of vehicle emissions. The program expanded upon the EPA’s existing Ports Initiative, aimed at achieving net-zero emissions from ports by 2050 by transforming the sector’s infrastructure and incorporating new technologies. The two programs are expected to support the decarbonization of the maritime sector as well as to provide job opportunities in disadvantaged regions of the U.S. 

President Biden has previously announced $17 billion in investment from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law earmarked for the improvement of U.S. ports and waterways. Officials stated of the financing, “This historic investment will also play a role in reducing local pollution and climate emissions by limiting congestion and idling as well as by investing in electrification and other low-carbon technologies through programs, including supporting the future of zero-emission shipping.” 

Community and Industry Impact 

An analysis from February from the International Council on Clean Transportation showed that if every cruise or cargo ship visiting the ports plugged into the electric grid while docked, rather than idling its engines, it would dramatically improve the environment and community health in the region surrounding the port. 

For example, the full electrification at Seattle’s port would drive a 75 percent reduction in emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which can enter people’s lungs and bloodstream and elevate their risk for asthma, heart disease and cancer, according to the research. This could help prevent three premature deaths a year in the zone and provide a saving of $27 million in annual public health benefits for Seattle. 

However, ship manufacturing companies have highlighted challenges in the electrification and decarbonization of shipping that must be addressed to ensure a successful transition. Many firms are now scared to build new fleets because of potential decarbonization rules that may come into place in the future. 

That move could lead to added costs for the retrofitting of fleets with the necessary new equipment, or the development of new green fleets, with the potential for huge financial losses. This strongly demonstrates the need for clear, official guidance and regulations in the sector, that address the needs and expectations of shipbuilders and operators as the sector undergoes a decarbonization.


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