New Report Reveal 15 Big Companies Behind Major Pollution From Shipping-Related Emissions

Now and then, we hear campaigns of protecting the planet, a green planet and what not by environmentalists and climate conservers. Also, many big corporations and retail companies state they follow and take proactive steps to create a greener planet. But do they follow it?

New research reports have surfaced that tracked the quantity of shipping-related emissions by massive retailers. The study includes retailer stalwarts like Walmart, Ikea, Amazon, and Target. The report was released by the Pacific Environment and featured 15 big companies who are responsible for massive pollution and carbon emissions from an often-neglected business, importing the goods on cargo ships to the U.S.

The companies include big corporations like Walmart, Ikea, Amazon, Ashley HomeStore, among others. This report reveals the harsh truth about international shipping and just how much environmental destruction some of these large companies are causing by importing goods.

container ships sailing top down view
Image Credits: DNV

The report highlights that around 80% of global trade that circulates globally by around 50,000 cargo ships. Estimates suggest that cargo quantities could grow as much as 130 per cent by 2050, thanks to one-click shipping becoming widely accessible globally, and Amazon and other e-commerce businesses conquer more of the world.

These cargo ships run on dirty and inexpensive fuel, known as “bunker fuel”, which releases countless pollutants. Maritime shipping, it is estimated, is responsible for around 10 to 20 per cent of the world’s sulphur oxide and nitrous oxide emissions. Shipping is also responsible for 2.2 per cent of global carbon emissions.

There is a lot of obscurities around global shipping, which makes it extremely difficult to trace. For instance, a Walmart factory overseas never ships Walmart products on a Walmart-owned ship to the U.S.

There are several middlemen, subsidiaries, and shell companies that help pass cargo off for these large corporations. These subsidiaries hardly accumulate and tally data or ever publicly publish their transactions. Due to this, several stalwart corporations can leave the carbon footprint of sending and shipping out of net-zero calculations or green promises.

Amazon earlier featured in the headlines when it implemented its Shipment Zero Initiative. This initiative aimed to reduce Amazon’s emissions from several package shipping in half by the year 2050. But the initiative only covers ground transportation emissions and not shipping emissions.

Madeline Rose, an active climate campaign director based at Pacific Environment, stated, “pollution arising out of ocean shipping is easy for the stalwart companies to hide. It is because once it gets out of sight, it becomes out of mind for the customers”.

She is also the research lead author of the report. While working proactively on the report, Rose and other researchers could lay their hands on the accumulative data from active voyages made by individual vessels. They could also calculate the emissions from each vessel on the import voyage.

After that, they overlapped these calculated datasets with manually verified datasets of every retailer’s maritime imports conducted to the U.S. They accumulated these from cargo manifests and also the Journal of Commerce. It also enabled them to track and report how much of the emissions specific retailers were responsible for by transporting their goods into the U.S. Their results showed the pollution created by these 15 companies.

Walmart was the top polluter on the list, according to their study. The company was also responsible for more than emissions of 3.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from shipping in the year 2019 only. The figure is roughly equivalent to the emissions omit from one huge coal plant as per the researchers.

The report came up with some disturbing findings. For instance, corporations like Walmart, Target, and Ashley HomeStore emit more sulphur dioxide and Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 emissions than the most significant power plant of the U.S. In an overall view, these 15 big retailers produced nitrous oxide in as much as 27.4 million cars on the road.

The report findings estimate that the tallied numbers account only for a fraction- a fifth of the total actual emissions produced through shipping. They believe this is because the researchers could only trace 15 per cent of Amazon’s cargoes. They could not include cargoes from shell companies or subsidiary companies which are not associated with major retailers. According to the researchers, there was a lack of data transparency for a thorough study.

The researchers also say that they could not calculate the emissions that the return trips generate and suggest that these numbers were from 2019 before the pandemic. Thus, there is a high possibility that the finding numbers will be much worse after the last year when the e-commerce sector (and transporting goods from overseas) grew by 16.5%.

The difficulty with decarbonising shipping routes, much like aviation, is that existing greener and cleaner technologies such as methanol fuelled boats are not effective over long distances.

The greener technologies are also comparatively more expensive than the existing ones. According to Rose, “the technology required to sail cargo ships without burning any carbon also exists”. She asserted that “at present, there should be robust market signals that will levy shipping liners to invest and work towards a cleaner, safer and zero-emission future.”

The International Maritime Organisation estimated that carbon pollution from several cargo ships will rise drastically by 50-250% if the industry now doesn’t stand up for a green planet. We can say it is the right move to pressure brands and corporations to get the industry to clean up the pollution.


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