How Global Freight Shipping Can Tackle Climate Issues

The conclusion of the COP 28 summit has been hailed by some as the beginning of the end for fossil fuels, although a delegation of 39 small island nations was highly critical of the deal reached.

While it remains to be seen if the deal is truly worth the paper it is written on, it should be noted that much of the focus on emissions and fossil fuel concerns national totals, which apply on land, at ports and in territorial waters. But nobody wants to claim responsibility for emissions in international waters in the middle of the ocean.

However, this can be ignored no longer; partly because attention is being focused on this issue more than ever, partly because some sea freight companies are trying to do something about it, but also because climate change can cause massive problems for shipping.

For example, the Panama Canal has been hit by an unseasonal drought that has led to huge falls in water levels. This has led to far fewer ships being able to use this crucial link between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

UK and European consumers have been warned they may face shortages of some fruits, as well as new world wines from the Americas, as a result. That may be seen as an irritation by consumers, but for the importers and exporters, the situation could be ruinous if the kind of drought conditions blighting the canal become the norm.

The problem is not unique to Panama. In Germany, there is a certain irony that the southern part of the Rhine has recently been closed to shipping because water levels have been too high after a sudden thaw led to extensive snow melt feeding its tributaries. In recent summers, it is low water levels that have made transportation by ship on this river difficult.

Climate scientists have warned that both droughts in some places and excessive rainfall in others - often combined with other contributions to higher water levels such as melting glaciers - are a sign of things to come and that matters will only get worse if the targets of limiting heating to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial norms cannot be met.

As Trade Winds reports, the shipping sector has been told to play its part by adopting carbon capture technology. Clearly, if crucial shipping lanes are at risk of drying up, it is directly in the industry’s interest to do so.

Part of the solution could come not just by capturing carbon burned by ship engines, but by switching to alternative fuel sources.

A paper published in the summer by Norwegian risk management firm DNV noted that so far, the use of biofuels by the shipping sector has been very low, accounting for just 0.1 per cent of the 280 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) used.

Producing enough biofuel to change this will be a major challenge, not least as it is widely agreed that only using waste material is sustainable; growing crops for fuel denies people food.

It estimates the amount of biofuel produced globally by 2050 will be between 500 - 1,300 Mtoe per year. For the shipping sector to meet its 2050 net zero target this way, it would need to make use of between 20 and 50 per cent of all the biofuel produced.

The industry may be up for the challenge, but it will be a steep one.

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