Until 2018, the maritime industry did not have a climate plan. While this may seem surprising, shipping tends to stay quiet about the environmental impacts of a global economy. Additionally, unlike other carbon-intensive sectors, it tends to quietly sail along unnoticed by consumers. It was not included in the Paris Agreement in 2016 and was not held accountable for its contribution to increased greenhouse gas emissions.
The International Maritime Organization laid out plans to cut emissions in half by 2050, an ambitious goal by one of the world’s main polluters. One of the main strategies to reduce CO2 emissions is to transition to more efficient fuel types. Most large shipping vessels operate with heavy fuel oil, which is rich in sulfur and extremely polluting. The International Maritime Organization is seeking to replace heavy fuel oil in 60,000 shipping vessels.
However, consumer awareness surrounding the environmental cost of international shipping, coupled with innovative technology, may reduce the amount of pollution produced. The most likely solutions for reducing emissions from the maritime industry include transitioning to a more low-carbon fuel source, changing transport speeds, adopting sustainable shipping waste disposal strategies, transitioning to renewable energy and optimizing travel routes.
The Price of International Shipping
Shipping emissions are expected to grow exponentially between now and 2050. International shipping accounts for the majority of industrial pollution. Maritime regulations are significantly behind those for other carbon-intensive industries. It can be legally complicated to assign accountability to certain countries, especially in international waters. A handful of mega-ships can have the same level of greenhouse gas emissions as millions of cars, accounting for an incalculable portion of air and water pollution.
Our economy is global. When you look at the tags on your furniture, appliances, clothes and electronics, you may see dozens of countries around the world. Even our food, including perishable items like avocados and lettuce, are shipped internationally. Fresh produce can be shipped thousands of miles without spoiling using different refrigeration systems, such as air compressor technology. While these technologies make it easier to transport food, they come with a high-carbon impact. However, there are energy-efficient solutions to reduce carbon emissions in the shipping industry.
Low-carbon technology is available in the shipping industry, but how it works in practice may be a different story. For example, switching from a high sulfur fuel oil to a low carbon option may have the greatest impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Lowering sulfur oxide emissions is key to reducing the effects of international shipping.
However, switching oils will require the industry to identify pollution from the whole lifecycle, meaning that the use of fuel is only one part of its environmental impact. Accounting for this will be crucial in finding a sustainable solution for maritime industry emissions.
Another solution that is easier to implement than changing fuels is a practice called slow steaming. Slow steaming simply refers to slowing boats down, sometimes only by a few degrees. While it may not sound like much, changing a ship’s speed by a couple of kilometers can result in an 18% increase in fuel savings, which could be a gamechanger. However, industry leaders are worried that simply slowing down ships is not the answer, since it will result in a need for more vessels to keep the global economy moving.
Other energy-efficient solutions to maritime industry emissions include route optimization, renewable energy such as wind-assist technology and transitioning to all-electric ships. Norway, a main exporter in the petroleum and fish industries, has already tested an all-electric vessel and is actively working to optimize this technology to transition more ships away from fuel oil.
Time for Maritime to Go Green
The effort by the maritime industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is significant. Effective solutions to help curb climate change include transitioning to low sulfur fuel oils, changing ship speeds and investing in new technology such as renewable energy. However, consumer awareness will also play a vital role in the future of international shipping. The cost of a global economy is significant. Finding more sustainable methods of transporting goods across the ocean is imperative.