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Shipping: all at sea

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
Shipping: all at sea
26 May
International shipping may be attempting to reduce its carbon footprint, but as Marco Magrini finds, it’ll take a lot more than good intentions

Ocean shipping is, if not the bread, at least the butter of globalisation. There are approximately 17 million shipping containers currently roaming the planet an estimated total of 200 million times a year. If we add tankers and other vessels to the count, it makes no wonder that maritime navigation produces three per cent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, on a par with Germany and more than the entire United Kingdom.

Thankfully, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a United Nations agency, recently agreed to ‘at least’ halve shipping emissions by 2050, compared to 2008 levels. It appears to be along the right lines, since countries such as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Panama were all against it.

However, it looks more like a failure if we consider the far more ambitious cuts prescribed by scientists and upheld by green activists. Or it may, in fact, look like a dream as the IMO forecasts that shipping could grow two and a half times by mid-century. Is it possible to halve emissions while they are doubling at the same time?

Yes, it is, provided there is an international agreement in place, an enduring political will and plenty of money to be spent. Still, if the IMO accord were to be followed to the letter, the ‘at least halving’ vow badly needs help from future technologies. ‘While liquid natural gas and biofuels will probably form a part of the interim solution,’ says Esben Poulsson, chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping, ‘these very high goals can only be achieved with the development of zero-carbon propulsion systems.’

The world’s shipping fleet has the obligation to switch to a cleaner fuel. The one in use now, known as bunker fuel, is essentially what’s left at the bottom of the barrel when everything else has been refined. It emits harmful sulphur and also black carbon, the worst of climate offenders (as it heats the atmosphere and reduces ice reflectivity at the same time).

Given available technologies, a fuel switch is the IMO’s low-hanging fruit, together with energy efficiency (slowing ships down by ten per cent produces enormous savings). Still, a lot of financial resources and human ingenuity are needed if zero-carbon propulsion systems are to be devised and deployed by mid-century. As globalisation appears destined to grow even more, you don’t want its lubricating butter to come from a sticky, dirty and planet-threatening bunker oil.

This was published in the June 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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