Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Shipping: all at sea

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
Shipping: all at sea
26 May
2018
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

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!

geo line break v3

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital have a green future,...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Wildlife

A new system of robotic aerial vehicles is revolutionising the…

Wildlife

Technology used in creating safe urban environments is now being…

Climate

Brazil’s shift to the right of the political spectrum could…

Wildlife

Laura Cole travels to Orkney to find out why numbers…

Wildlife

The unprecedented frequency of winter tick epidemics have resulted in…

Oceans

Ocean debris, mostly composed of plastic, reaches remote Atlantic islands…

Geophoto

With motion detectors becoming ever more sophisticated, and clearer, crisper…

Nature

Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of…

Tectonics

The reason for the unusual location of Mount St Helens…

Climate

Most plants thicken their leaves in response to higher carbon…

Climate

Not just the preserve of flatulent cows, methane is causing…

Climate

As the United States’ Supreme Court delays a landmark climate…

Geophoto

Of Britain's 15 national parks, the New Forest is probably…

Energy

The Treasury has announced that it is considering imposing a…

Tectonics

Major earthquakes are triggering seismic activity half the world away

Climate

Marco Magrini finds that a warming world also means a…

Wildlife

Unchecked tourism is potentially reducing the number of cheetah cubs that…

Oceans

A relocated military base in Okinawa, Japan will cause ‘irreversible’…

Climate

The ongoing recovery of the planet’s ozone layer is being…

Oceans

The Ocean Cleanup has launched System 001, a floating barrier…