The Future of Sustainable Shipping

Seaborne shipping accounts for circa 90% of world trade and studies show how the maritime sector will be responsible for 10% of global GHG emissions by 2050. Until now not enough has been done to lower and monitor emissions generated by this sector and binding agreements between countries have been proven to be insufficient. As climate movements sprout around the world, International Maritime Organization (IMO), chose “Sustainable shipping for a sustainable planet” to be the 2020 World Maritime theme.

The shipping sector produces various types of emissions, among which are carbon dioxide (CO2), black carbon and air pollutants like nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matter (PM). The exact amount of chemicals that get released is hard to measure, hence it is difficult to create international binding treaties that are respected by both the private and the public sector. The most recent data on shipping emission is provided by the 2017 version of the Third IMO Greenhouse Gas Study, and it estimated that international shipping emitted 796 million tonnes of CO2 on average for the years 2007-2012. Nonetheless it is possible to adopt measures to tackle GHG emissions and to respect the COP21 agreement ambitions to keep the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius.

Although being the first globally enforced treaty on environment protection, following the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris agreement is mute on what concerns international shipping and aviation emissions reduction targets. In fact, the treaty states that countries need to cope with the temperature decrease goal, setting nationals standards and measures, following the “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) approach.

The chief regulator for maritime traffic and maritime related issues is the IMO, that is a UN regulatory agency whose mission is to ensure “safe, secure and efficient shipping on clean oceans”. The IMO is therefore the main organization that sets binding energy efficiency requirements for container ships that producers, privates and governments need to comply with. The last updated requirement is the EEDI, the energy efficiency design index set by the organization in 2011. In recent times, the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MPEC) of the IMO has been considering whether the 2020 EEDI target should be retained valid, or if it should be amended. The hypothesis of a revision arouse because there has been a tendency of overcompliance in new vessel design, that might not be as much a direct effect of the incentives set by the EEDI, as more of a market/price incentive type of reaction of the maritime trade sector. Increasing fuel prices are held responsible for this wave of design efficiency but as prices may fluctuate in the future, efficiency standard cannot retreat, and this is why the EEDI should be revised and complemented with a set of stringent incentives. 

Besides technical criteria there are some other measures that are believed by the scientific community to have the power of effectively tackling emission reduction. These are operational practices, changes in ships operation modalities that are able to cut down fossil combustion. The most debated one is slow steaming: This is a simple practice of not operating the engine at its full capacity and to reduce the vessel velocity, hence reducing emissions. Of course, to make up for the lost speed and the slowed-down flow of trade traffic, the international mercantile fleet would need to be augmented with more units, operated at the same “slow steamed velocity”. Although this can seem like a counter intuitive measure, studies demonstrate that the incrementation of the fleet would not compensate the overall reduction of emission, that would nonetheless result in a 19% cutdown. So, the downside of this policy would again mainly regard its enforceability.

Other measures that have been taken into consideration are LNG, liquid natural gas, which has been presented as an alternative to HFO, heavy fuel oil, and MGO, marine gas oil, but the risk of a methane leakage has been wearing this option away for the time being. Besides this, some other forms of market-based measures, cap-and-trade systems and material efficiency criteria have been discussed, but nothing has been concluded on an international level so far.

What appears to be an exception to this climate of uncertainty is the recently released “Initial IMO strategy on the reduction of GHG emissions from ships”, that sets norms and rules targeting the reduction of maritime generated emissions. This pivotal document has the ambitious goal to cut emissions by half until 2050 while pursuing a path to complete decarbonisation. Before that the main source of emission regulation was the MARPOL 73/78 Convention (short for International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships). This convention is the object of continuing amendments, the last of which concerned its Annex VI on air pollution. In fact, from January 2020 onwards the global sulphur limit will drop from an allowed 3,5% sulphur in marine fuels to 0,5% ameliorating air quality in coastal and portal areas.

The release of the IMO’s GHG reduction strategy is in line with the choice of the 2020 as the year of sustainable shipping and with IMO’s general effort to implement and respect the 2015 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development for 2030 and its 17 SDGs. Some other ambitious and relevant organizations that are working towards decarbonization and that are worth mentioning are the GLOMEEP, the Global Industry Alliance to Support Low Carbon Shipping and the Global Maritime Technology Cooperation Centres Network (GMN) Fund.

It it is possible to assume from the gathered information, that advances are being made in the field of emission reduction. The recent awareness towards environment preservation and restoration has been – hopefully – making it impossible for decision makers to look away, and public pressure in favour of action continues to grow. What is left to be determined is how economic growth standards and markets are going to adjust with all of this, but seaborne trade seems to have all the possibility to safely correct and reduce its emissions while keeping its profits and traffic flux high. More on the issue will be made public after the 2020 High-Level UN Conference to Support the Implementation of SDG 14 (life below water) that will convene in Lisbon, Portugal.

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