Such is the density of international shipping represented as tiny symbols on global maritime tracking websites that the vast fleet continuously circling the globe appears as a massive, previously undiscovered land mass. The illusion is fitting. As the World Economic Forum put it recently, “If shipping were a country, it would be the world’s sixth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter.”
Now a report from Seas at Risk, a collaboration of environmental NGOs, has further highlighted the threat posed by the industry – and proposed a simple solution. Ships, it says, should simply slow down. Reducing average speeds by 20 percent would cut emissions by up to 34 percent.
The problem with this go-slow quick fix is that, even if an industry competing to meet the demands of the global economy could be persuaded to adopt it, any gains would be quickly swamped by the growth in trade.
Each one of us has a vested interest in at least one of those ships at sea, carrying oil, cars, toys, clothes or any of the desirable objects we buy from Amazon without a thought for how it will cross the world to our door.
Few parts of the world are more dependent upon this lifeline than the Arabian Peninsula. Zoom in on the region on any tracking site and the scale of the armada sailing to and from the great container ports of Jeddah, Fujairah and Dubai becomes graphically apparent.
The list of the world’s top 20 container ports reveals not only the origin of the stuff we buy but also where it’s bound. East and Southeast Asia account for nine of the 10 busiest container ports in the world. China, the world’s factory, is alone the source of a quarter of all sea traffic. The only port in the top 10 not in China, Singapore or South Korea is Dubai, a regional container hub busier than any in Europe or the US.
The Middle East is doing more than its share to keep the propellers of international trade churning, contributing substantially to the threat posed by shipping to climate change and adding to the environmental burden already attributable to the region’s growing demand for electricity and desalinated water.
Individuals can restrict water use, reduce consumption of electricity and use public transport. But in countries in which more than 95 percent of all products arrive by sea, there is little we can do personally to reduce the growing environmental impact of shipping.
According to the inter-governmental think-tank, International Transport Forum, in 2012 maritime transport emitted 938 tonnes of carbon dioxide – 2.6 percent of total global emissions. But by 2050 emissions will have increased by as much as 250 percent “if no drastic action is taken.”
The world’s ever-growing hunger for “stuff” is reflected in the growth of maritime trade. In 1970 just 2,605 million tonnes were shipped in containers, bulk carriers and tankers carrying oil, gas and chemicals. By 2018 this had more than quadrupled to 11,005 million tonnes.
Unpicking this grand total is revealing. Between 1970 and 2018 tanker traffic increased by 121 percent from 1,440 to 3,194 million tonnes. If that sounds impressive, compare it with the 541 percent increase in dry cargo, chiefly containers, from 717 to 4,601 million tonnes.
In other words, consumerism is outstripping even our insatiable hunger for fossil fuels. Of course, international trade that leverages each country’s comparative advantage is an economic virtue. The question is how to mitigate the cost of emissions.
The shipping industry is making some attempt to do that. In 2018, the first carbon dioxide targets for the sector were adopted by the International Maritime Organization, which set the goal of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 50 percent by 2050 compared to the level in 2008.
This is a tall order. At an IMO sustainability conference in Jeddah this month, John Calleya, the organization’s lead expert on pollution, made clear that reducing speeds and other operational tinkering wasn’t enough. To substantially reduce emissions “industry stakeholders have to start looking at alternative fuels.”
The 50 percent target was a compromise reached with oil-producing nations, including the US, Saudi Arabia and Brazil, which objected to an initial proposal to reduce emissions by over 70 percent.
One change the IMO has already made is to cap emissions of sulphur oxide, a product of burning heavy fuel oil that is bad for human health and causes acidification of the oceans. The regulation, which comes into force from January 1, means ships will have to use a different quality of oil.
According to energy analysts S&P Global Platts, Saudi Arabia will benefit in the short term from the switch to the light, sweet crude that will be in demand. But, it says, “emissions regulation of any kind tends to accelerate the shift away from the use of oil over the longer term – a move that is not in Saudi Arabia’s immediate interests.”
If the great oil producers hesitate too long before embracing development of alternatives, the oil that transformed Arabian fortunes could yet turn from a blessing to a curse in the brave new environmentally aware world.
The International Transport Forum is proposing blue-sky initiatives to green the shipping industry. In addition to a reduction in ship speeds, it is calling for the urgent development of alternative fuels, such as ammonia and hydrogen, and renewable energy, including wind assistance and electric propulsion.
Slowing down ships, in other words, is just part of the answer. But in shipping, as in every other part of the energy mosaic, speeding up the response of the world’s oil producers to the crisis that threatens us all is the greatest challenge in the battle to halt climate change.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.