This article, by Shayne MacLachlan of the OECD Environment Directorate, is co-published with the OECD Insights Blog.
Newcastle, Australia has the dubious honour of being the world’s largest port for coal exports. There’s even a coal price index named after it: The NEWC Index. Surfing Novocastrian beaches not only means “watching out” for great-white sharks, but also “being watched” by the lurking great-red coal ships out beyond the breakers, waiting to come in to port for their fill (see photo). Growing up accustomed to these ever-present leviathans, I never questioned what ships did to the environment and to our health apart from when they crash and leak oil. This all changed recently as I discovered a raft of statistics about the shipping industry that indicate we’ve been sailing too close to the rocks since the engine started replacing sails and oars in the early 1800s.
A stern warning for climate change, and our health
Shipping brings us 90% of world trade and has increased in size by 400% in the last 45 years. Cargo ships, tankers and dry-bulk tankers are an essential element of a globalised world economy, but they are thirsty titans and they won’t settle for diet drinks. There are up to 100,000 working vessels on the ocean and some travel an incredible 2/3 of the distance to the moon in one year. Some stats floating around state that the 15 largest ships emit as much as all the 780 million cars in the world in terms of particulates, soot and noxious gases. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) says sea shipping makes up around 3% of global CO2 emissions which is slightly less than Japan’s annual emissions, the world’s 5th-highest emitting country. Ships carry considerable loads so they’re reasonably efficient on a tonne-per-kilometre basis, but with shipping growing so fast, this “broad in the beam” industry is laying down a significant carbon footprint. And local pollution created by ships when they are moored and as they rev hard to get in and out of port can be severe as most use low-grade bunker oil, containing highly-polluting sulphur. Ships also produce high levels of harmful nanoparticles, but encouragingly we’ve seen IMO collaboration to raise standards on air pollution from ships.
Mal de mer with rudderless regulation
A recent estimate forecasts that CO2 emissions from ships will increase by up to 250% in the next 35 years, and could represent 14% of total global emissions by 2050. This could wreck our hopes of getting to a well-below 2°C warming scenario. Even though many, including Richard Branson, called for emission reduction targets for international aviation and shipping to be included in the COP21 Paris Climate agreement, we failed. The IMO has introduced binding energy-efficiency measures so by 2025 all new ships will have to be 30% more efficient that those built today, but in my view there are questions about stringency and seemingly they don’t go far enough.
Navigating alternative routes to <2°C
As the Arctic ice sheet melts, a route across the North Pole would be about one-fifth shorter in distance than the Northern Sea route. But this isn’t what I have in mind for reducing shipping fuel consumption and emissions. We need to develop a copper-bottomed response to the challenge by further boosting investment in innovation and research. It’s great to all these sustainable shipping initiatives in the offing:
- Fit wind, wave and solar power such as kite sails, fins and solar panels. There’s some research into other energy sources underway such as nuclear cargo ships, but of course that presents another element of risk if something goes wrong.
- Increase carrying capacity of ships and future proofing of ships for a further 10-15 years with increased fuel efficiency by retrofitting vessels with more technologically advanced equipment.
- Use heat recovery technology to harness waste energy from exhaust gases to create steam, then mechanical energy, then electrical energy to power elements of the ship’s systems.
- Construct ships with sleeker design to reduce drag and install more efficient propellers.
- Use Maritime Emissions Treatment Systems (METS) in the form of a barge which positions large tubes over ships’ smoke stacks and captures and treats emissions from berthed vessels.
Let’s sink fossil fuels
Innovation and efficiency is hardly a “cut and run” approach. And typically when an industry reduces fuel costs they use the savings to increase activity, meaning carbon reduction is limited. This “rebound effect” could happen in maritime shipping. Truly green shipping will require vessels that are 100% fossil-fuel free. To help drive down fossil-fuel use, a carbon charge for shipping (and aviation) has been proposed. The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) queried the carbon price of $US25 per tonne. Indeed this is higher than the price on CO2 for onshore industries in developed countries. What’s needed is a system where emitters that aren’t linked to a country’s climate policies are accountable. At COP17 in Durban, delegates discussed a universal charge for all ships that would generate billions of dollars. The money could be channelled to developing countries’ climate policy action. Phasing out subsidies on bunker fuel used by ships is also needed to get us on the right course.
You can’t cross the sea by standing and staring at the water
Following Paris it’s time for specific shipping emissions targets. It appears we know the co-ordinates but the fuel tanks are full of the wrong stuff. Earlier this month, the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the IMO discussed emissions targets but only got as far as approving compulsory monitoring of ship fuel consumption. This is a key step if one day we introduce market-based mechanisms to reduce shipping emissions. What’s needed is accelerated action consistent with the Paris agreement.
In the doldrums of COP21, it seems shipping (and it’s by no means the only sector) is rather like that surfer, sitting on their board waiting for the next wave. At the same time it’s trying to avoid the lurking great white shark.
Did shipping just fail the climate test? ITF’s Olaf Merk on Shipping Today