Five reasons why global shipping is bad for the planet

A recent report in The Maritime Executive, describes the “World first zero emissions wind and hydrogen power cargo ship.” Stories about low emission ships have been appearing for some time. A rather optimistic article on the Mongabay Website provides a potted history of the type. However, all this optimism could well be misplaced, given five reasons why global shipping is bad for the planet.

The five reasons why global shipping is bad for the planet

The five reasons why global shipping is bad for the planet are outlined below. However, I intend to concentrate on the fifth, greenhouse gas emissions.

  1. Air Pollution – Ships are responsible for more than 18 percent of some air pollutants. These can be a particular problem inshore where the fumes from large diesel engines concentrate.
  2. Water Pollution – The cruise line industry dumps 255,000 US gallons (970 m3) of greywater and 30,000 US gallons (110 m3) of blackwater into the sea every day. Bilge water is another problem. Oil leaks from engine and machinery spaces or from engine maintenance activities and mixes with water in the bilge. All these pollutants can kill fish and damage the ocean eco-structure.
  3. Sound Pollution – The noise produced by ships can travel long distances. This can interfere significantly with marine species who may rely on sound for communication, location finding and feeding.
  4. Oil Pollution – Oil spills are the most common type of pollution associated with shipping. Although thankfully far less frequent than operational pollution, oil spills are devastating to the environment. The oil spill from the Exxon Valdez in the Prince William Sound is a classic example of impact oil spill can have.
  5. Greenhouse Gas – A report produced by the International Council on Clean Transport stated that, global shipping emits 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year or just over 2% of all man-made emissions. About the same level of emissions as Germany. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) made a similar estimate in 2012. A further IMO study in 2014 projected that if no action is taken, by 2050 emissions would rise by 50 to 250 percent. This was confirmed by UN Climate Change in 2016.


The Paris Climate Agreement and Maritime GHG Emissions

These estimates are relevant even though they were made some years ago.  They formed the basis of discussions at COP 21 in 2015, which produced the Paris Climate Agreement.  This is where the resistance from Global shipping started.  Initially, the industry unilaterally opted out.  Shipbuilding nations like Japan that produce high-polluting ships supported the move.

In 2018 pressure from NGOs and environmentally friendly Governments, appeared to produce a result.  Representatives from 100 countries reached an agreement to voluntarily comply with the Paris Agreement emissions targets. The agreement was hammered out at the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London. It was proposed that, emissions would be reduced by 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 levels. Even though it was hailed as an “Historic” climate deal, few of the participants on either side of the debate were happy. More notice should have been taken of the statement made by Kitack Lim, secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization. He chaired the controversial talks and said: “This initial strategy is not a final statement but a key starting point.” How prescient.

What needed to be achieved?

Two things were needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement. First, over a ten year period, ships would need to make existing fuel systems more efficient. This would mean ceasing to burn bunker oil“; the highly polluting, carbon intensive residue left after oil refineries have separated out everything useful. It has no other commercial use and oil refineries need to get rid of it somehow, therefore it is cheap. Safer less polluting fuels would be more expensive. Not what many shipowners and shipbuilding countries want to hear.

There are also technologies that can help achieve emissions reduction. Options include sail technologies and bubble lubrication of the hull, which can improve fuel economy by up to 35%.  However, as shipping has historically invested less than 1% of annual global revenues in R&D, don’t hold your breath. The banking industry invests 12% of revenues in R&D every year.

Secondly, within a decade, new ships using alternative fuels need to be produced in large numbers, to allow the move away from fossil fuels. The alternatives are; electric, ammonia, green hydrogen and possibly Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Using LNG produces methane, which is 28 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It is therefore still a controversial option. Limited research suggests that moving from bunker fuel to LNG would reduce emissions by around 18%, but many consider that this is not a viable long term solution.

International Maritime Organization – October 2020

Just two years later the same group failed to agree targets as delegates pursued measures that broke the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The 2018 agreement only needed emissions to be reduced by 15% to reach 850 million tons a year by 2030. The catchily titled, Intersessional Working Group on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships produced a proposal that would, at best, curb just 0.8% -1.6% of GHG emissions from a business-as-usual growth pathway by 2030.

To make matters worse, the IMO will not impose any meaningful penalties for ships that fail these weaker standards. In effect, the IMO failed to deliver a meaningful plan to improve fuel efficiency and reduce GHG emissions, let alone impose penalties on rulebreakers.

Although the IMO was hosting the talks, Japan’s representative chairs the Marine Environment Protection Committee. Japan’s resistance to setting climate change targets has been subject to widespread criticism. Japan has been accused of reticence in enforcing stringent targets on the shipping industry.

To quote an October 2020 article in Forbes;

“…Japan has even greater influence on climate outcomes as it also controls the powerful environmental committee at the IMO and has long been seen to favor its domestic shipping industry with lower emission standards.”

The Implications

Far from seeing a 75% (359 million tonnes) reduction in GHG emissions from shipping in ten years, emissions will increase. The outcome of the talks means that GHG emissions will increase by 14% by 2030.  That number assumes that the new agreement is actually enforced.

The statement made by Pacific Environment’s Climate Director; Madeline Rose says it all;

“This week, the IMO failed to make progress on its own climate strategy. The IMO’s Greenhouse Gas working group advanced a proposed policy that, as written, will allow the shipping industry’s climate emissions to continue to rise for the rest of this decade – the very decade that climate science tells us we must be steeply reversing absolute emissions in order to save the planet from catastrophe.”

What Now?

The follow-up meeting in November 2020 simply reiterated the previous proposal.  However, in its report, it did state that draft amendments, “which aims to reduce carbon intensity of international shipping by 40% by 2030, compared to 2008”, would be “put forward for formal adoption at MEPC 76 session, to be held during 2021.”

Until then environmental NGOs are hoping that individual nations and regional groups like the EU, will take action where the IMO has failed. The change of occupant in the White House might mean that the US takes a more positive view on regulation. Governments are the only institutions that can enforce change and they need to take action now.

You may also be interested in our blog, Bottom Trawling is a climate change disaster.

Glen Winkfield

9th April 2021