Many cargo ships still use “bunker fuel”—the sludgy dregs of the petroleum refining process.
The platform overlooking the Panama Canal’s Pacific exit is buzzing with energy on a muggy October afternoon. Tourists cram together, jostling for the best views of the blue container ship gliding by in the gray-green water below. The ship’s crewmembers wave from aboard the 690-foot-long vessel, smiling as they end their eight-hour, 48-mile journey.
An employee brandishing a wireless microphone—the canal’s hype man—leads the crowd in a series of cheers, his voice as bombastic as a sports announcer’s. “Let’s give them a round of applause!” he booms in Spanish and then English. The visitors heartily oblige, clapping for the sailors aboard the Greek ship named Em Corfu.
Next in line is a colossal Japanese carrier that just unloaded cars on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Its blue metal sides block out the sky. Behind that comes a red tanker hauling liquefied natural gas produced in the United States to terminals in Mexico.
It’s awe-inspiring. But it’s also fairly alarming.
About 90 percent of everything we buy will travel on ships like these at some point. And all of these behemoths burn fossil fuel, contributing significantly to the warming atmosphere and shifting climate patterns.
Many cargo ships still use “bunker fuel”—the sludgy dregs of the petroleum refining process. The noxious blend is dirt-cheap, making it possible to charge next to nothing to ship goods internationally. All of which means our unbridled consumerism hitches a ride on some of the dirtiest vehicles on earth. (At least they hold tons of stuff, right?)
The industry’s reliance on high-carbon fuel poses a major stumbling block for global efforts to rein in pollution. A few companies are ramping up investment in pilot projects that use renewable fuels and cleaner technologies. And a vocal minority within the industry is clamoring for a maritime climate policy to spur more innovation. But on the whole, there’s widespread reluctance to adopt meaningful change.
Clean shipping advocates plan to spotlight the sector’s emissions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which opened on November 6 in Bonn, Germany. Known as COP23, the gathering marks two years since the world agreed in Paris on a landmark climate accord—one that the Trump administration plans to abandon. The agreement, however, excluded pollution from international shipping and aviation in its targets to limit global warming. Officials had argued that those industries don’t easily fit into national or regional emissions schemes—and so they were left to regulate themselves.
Experts say regulatory action and big, bold investments will be essential to curbing the shipping industry’s contribution to global warming. Left unchecked, its carbon footprint is expected to soar in coming decades—just as emissions from cars and power plants flatline or decline. That means shipping could cancel out progress in other sectors.
The International Maritime Organization, the industry’s main regulator, suggests that carbon emissions from shipping could shoot up as much as 250 percent by 2050 as the world’s population grows and economies expand. At that point, the European Parliament estimates the industry could produce 17 percent of global emissions, up from less than 3 percent today.
But Tristan Smith, a leading shipping researcher at University College London’s Energy Institute, notes companies still have little reason to spend their time and money building a greener cargo fleet. “A very large proportion of the sector is really not interested in doing anything until the very last minute that the regulation hits,” he says.
From the Panama Canal, a string of heavily congested highways leads to Panama City’s glitzy downtown core. At a high-rise convention center in early October, hundreds of seafarers, naval officers, and industry officials have gathered for an IMO-sponsored event.
Jorge Quijano, administrator of the Panama Canal Authority, tells the crowd the canal is doing its part to “bring about a sense of responsibility with our planet.” In January, he explains, it launched a program to reward shippers that meet high energy-efficiency standards or use low-sulfur and lower-carbon fuels, including cleaner-burning liquefied natural gas. Companies that do so can boost their standing in the canal’s ranking system for determining who gets priority access to the waterway.
The industry finds initiatives like these, which encourage upgrades but not drastic overhauls, generally palatable—they promote good behavior without overtly punishing status quo ships.
“If we really want to reduce CO2 emissions to zero today we can do it in two ways: We can stop trading, or we can go back to sail,” the Greek shipowner said while speaking on a panel at the International Chamber of Shipping’s conference in London.
The pushback from executives like Lyras comes as more progressive voices are increasingly clamoring for the introduction of so-called “zero-emissions” ships, which don’t directly produce any greenhouse gas emissions. A research consortium comprised of major shipping companies and academic institutes asserts such vessels must start entering the mainstream cargo market by 2030. By 2050, the group says, nearly all operating cargo ships must generate zero emissions in order to fall in line with the Paris agreement goal of keeping global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels.
Proponents say it can happen if the industry doesn’t drag its feet. “We’re not saying you have to decarbonize right now,” says Smith of University College London. “You just have to start the process of figuring it out.”
Over the next two weeks in Germany, UN negotiators and thousands of other participants will gather to discuss not only promising ship technologies but also strategies to convince an old-fashioned industry to embrace new ideas.
Diane Gilpin, who’s helping organize a pro-climate shipping event that will take place on the cruise ship Rhine Fantasy, tells Grist about the sector’s reluctance to go green. Gilpin once worked to introduce mobile devices to British corporations. Now, she’s leading an effort to build a 100 percent renewable cargo vessel. She says the shipping industry’s apprehension reminds her of the late ‘90s and early 2000s when many people saw the cell phones they’re now wholly consumed by as frivolous and costly.
“Because we never had cell phones before, we didn’t think we needed them,” she explains. Gilpin describes her current work trying to change the shipping industry as “a human challenge in having people accept change.”
The most prominent options for powering a ship without fossil fuels include hydrogen, batteries, sustainably produced biofuels, and wind-assisted technologies that can reduce fuel use. All of these are being used or tested in small-scale vessels—primarily passenger ferries or supply boats that keep close to shore. But if any are going to gain favor in the mainstream shipping industry, today’s reigning champion—ultra-cheap bunker fuel—will need a price tag that reflects its true environmental cost.
According to a recent report by the global shipping services company Lloyd’s Register and University College London, about 75 percent of companies agree that forcing shippers to pay for carbon emissions is required to make a zero-emissions fleet a reality. The IMO would likely oversee such a program, and it plans to adopt an interim strategy for reducing greenhouse gases caused by shipping in April 2018. But the regulatory body doesn’t expect an agreement on actual pollution targets until 2023.
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