By Gwynne Dyer
“We’re waiting on food goods like coconut milk and syrups, some spare parts for motors, we’ve got some fork lift trucks, some Amazon goods on there, all sorts,” said Steve Parks of Seaport Freight Services in England, who is awaiting twenty of the 18,300 containers aboard the recently freed ‘Ever Given’. Which of those things cannot be sourced from somewhere closer than Asia?
Oh, all right. Coconut trees don’t grow in Europe, where ‘Ever Given’ is bound. But at least 80% of the cargo on that gigantic container ship didn’t really need to be moved halfway around the world. The stuff could be made a lot closer to where it is wanted. In fact, that used to be how things worked.
Now that the delinquent megaship has finally been freed from the Suez Canal, normal service will resume. Fifty-odd ships, bearing one-eighth of all the world’s international trade, will once again pass through the each day, and everybody will live happily ever after.
Well, no. Putting huge amounts of dispensable, low-value stuff on massive container ships only makes sense to accountants: the wage rates are lower on one side of the world than on the other. But it’s hell on the environment, because these ships are burning bunker oil.
Bunker (Heavy Fuel Oil – HFO) is the tar-like residue that remains at the end of the process of ‘cracking’ petroleum, after the lighter hydrocarbons like gasoline and diesel have been removed. Most cargo ships burn bunker, and it’s so polluting that ‘Ever Given’ produces as much pollution per day as fifty million cars driven the average daily distance.
A more relevant comparison, perhaps, is between the shipping and the aviation industries. Each accounts for about 3% of total emissions of human origin, they are both growing fast, and they are both hard nuts to crack.
Their shared basic problem is that you can’t easily electrify ships and planes. Electricity produced from clean sources like solar or wind or hydro-power is little help because of the deplorable lack of very long extension cables, and batteries are too heavy for planes and not long-lasting enough for ships that spend weeks at sea.
That is why both seaborne trade and commercial aviation were excluded from the emissions quotas that countries have signed up for. Instead, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) were given the job of reducing the emissions of their own industries. With exactly the results you would expect.
The IMO promised an actual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from shipping for the first time in 2018: a 50% cut by 2050. Not ‘net-zero’ emissions by 2050, like everybody else, but it’s a start – or it would be, except that the IMO won’t start enforcing emissions reductions until 2029 or 2030.
The one way to cut maritime carbon dioxide emissions fast is to lower the speed of the ships: reducing a large ship’s speed by 10% cuts its CO2 emissions by 27%. But the best measure of all, until a new generation of wind-driven cargo ships matures, is to cut the sheer volume of trinkets travelling by sea.
You can still have your cheap garden furniture, brand-name sneakers and plastic Easter eggs if you want, but make them closer to home and pay a little more. And put at least as much pressure on the world’s shipping industry for emissions cuts as popular opinion is already exerting on the aviation industry.