Schiele (UU): All at Sea – Accelerating the Sustainable Transition of International Shipping | 2021

This master's thesis by Jakob Schiele (Utrecht University) assesses the sustainable transition of international shipping and how it can be accelerated. Shipping is a hard-to-abate industry which is run unsustainably on a very polluting fossil fuel and accounts for as much CO2-emissions as aviation.



The study draws on socio-technical transition theory, using Kivimaa & Kern’s creation/destruction functions framework (based on the multi-level perspective and technological innovation systems) as well as the recent strand of literature on hard-to-abate industries, to ascertain which functions need to be fulfilled to accelerate the transition and how these functions are inhibited by 8 sector-specific barriers.


A mixed-method approach is used to generate insights into the case study of international shipping, with three methods used: 1) Literature analysis of academic and grey literature, including various reports on shipping (qualitative); 2) 12 semi-structured interviews with shipping stakeholders and experts (qualitative); 3) A historic event analysis of 1.460 relevant events identified in shipping news in the period since the IMO's initial GHG strategy (quantitative).


The shipping regime is so stable because of its complex industry structure involving many different stakeholders, a strong fossil fuel lock-in that developed in symbiosis with globalisation, and the way it is governed through the slow-moving International Maritime Organisation. The 8 barriers for hard-to-abate industries also apply for shipping. Alternative technologies are available, but have not yet been implemented on a large scale. The dominant alternative options for a long time were LNG (i.e. another fossil fuel) and efficiency increases (i.e. incremental innovations), but recently the focus has shifted towards more radically different alternative fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia. Electric propulsion has an important role in specific market segments, while biofuel, wind propulsion and methanol are adopted to a lesser extent across all segments. Barriers influence different technologies differently and therefore a coexistence or combination of various alternatives is likely to be the future of shipping. Hard-to-abate-sector-specific solutions can accelerate the shipping transition, including carbon pricing, regional governance, cooperation on R&D and the creation of new coalitions.


Incorporating sector-specific factors into transition frameworks allows for a more accurate assessment of regime types, resulting in better advice. Hard-to-abate transitions can be achieved, but they are unlikely to arise from niches without substantial policy action to destabilise and put pressure on the regime. Pathways where the regime is transformed from within are more probable than those where the regime and its actors are substituted.