No more plain sailing

Considering that 90% of the world's traded goods travel by sea, and that shipping produces twice the emissions of aircraft (and counting), the regulators have given the industry an easy ride. But, writes Mike Scott, testing times have appeared on its horizon

When environmentalists and regulators started focusing on transport emissions a few years ago, shipping sailed serenely under the radar, despite the fact that it is responsible for twice the emissions of aircraft.

This was partly just because aviation is more visible than shipping - even though marine craft cover far more miles than their airborne cousins, they are out of sight on the world's oceans. But 90% of all the world's traded goods travel by ship, and the industry has boomed on the back of the global economic growth of the last decade.

The industry's own international regulating body, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), revealed earlier this year that shipping's emissions last year were 1.2B tonnes, more than twice what had been previously thought and equivalent to almost 4.5% of global emissions. The situation is expected to become more critical, with 3,000 ships due to be built in the next three years and shipping emissions due to rise by 30% by 2020.

The IMO report found that emissions of other harmful pollutants, such as sulphur, nitrous oxides and particulate matter, were also worse than previously thought and growing fast. This is a problem for people living near busy shipping lanes such as the English Channel and near ports, where many ships use their own engines to provide auxiliary power because it is cheaper than buying it from the national grid.

One of the main reasons shipping's emissions are such an issue is the type of fuel ships use. While ships are built to run on diesel, their engines are robust enough to use poorer-quality fuel than other forms of transport. In the 1970s, when the oil price first soared, owners started to use "bunker fuel", according to Bill Box, communications manager at Intertanko, the body representing the world's largest tanker operators. Bunker fuel is essentially what is left over when refineries have extracted all the useful fuel they can from a barrel of oil. As well as causing health problems, the fuel also creates acid rain, which kills wildlife and forests. A recent study by researchers at the University of Delaware suggested that shipping fuel could be responsible for 60,000 deaths a year.

Yet shipping is not subject to the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, according to Michael Woods, a partner at the law firm Stephenson Harwood, the IMO is responsible for tackling the environmental impact. Like aviation, shipping has partly escaped the attentions of regulators because of its international nature - deciding who is responsible for emissions is tricky. Shipping fuel is also exempt from tax, like aviation fuel.

Conscious of the growing attention on shipping emissions and the ongoing attempts to create a framework for cutting emissions after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires, the IMO is looking at introducing "a mandatory regime to control greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from international shipping". "IMO is working to have measures in place to control GHG emissions from international shipping before the first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2011," the organisation adds.

The IMO is not the only organisation looking at ways to deal with the problem. The EU is considering including shipping in its Emissions Trading Scheme. The European Commission said shipping would be included in the ETS if the IMO did not produce concrete proposals by the end of 2008, which seems to have focused minds at the UN body. Brussels included aviation because it thought the International Civil Aviation Organisation was not taking the issue seriously enough.

In addition, "the industry knows the clock is ticking towards Copenhagen and if it does not take action, it could lose control of the process," says Don Gregory of shipping fuel refiner BP Marine.

Meanwhile, the UK's Climate Change Bill, due to come into force later this year, should include emissions from international shipping within five years, according to recent amendments to the bill in the House of Lords.

The industry points out a tonne of cargo can travel more than 2,800km on one litre of fuel, more than twice as far as 20 years ago, according to Intertanko's Bill Box. A truck produces ten times as much CO2 per tonne per km and aircraft produce 100 times as much. However, the size and growth projections for the industry are so vast that some form of regulation is inevitable.

There are already a number of solutions being proposed. Intertanko has suggested a ban on high-sulphur bunker fuels in favour of less harmful diesel. But opponents of the plan say it would add further pressure to oil prices and push them to new record highs because there is not sufficient refining capacity to produce the amount of diesel required. Nonetheless, some shipping companies have already switched to low-sulphur fuel, such as the Scandinavian group Wallenius Wilhelmsen.

Ships would also be an obvious market for biodiesel, but the amount of fuel shipping uses is so vast that all the arguments about sustainability become even more pertinent. If shipping becomes subject to emissions trading and second-generation biofuels from materials such as algae become widely available, then it could boost the market for biodiesel.

A study for the UK's Department for Transport, by consultancy AEA Technology, outlined a number of other possible avenues - some of them relatively simple. Fuel consumption could be cut by 20% just by optimising the hull shape, while new paints could cut up to 8% off the fuel bill. Sujith Kollamthodi, the report's author, says that most effective of all is improved fleet management. This includes cutting journey speeds, increasing the size of vessels and weather routing, as well as using shore-side electricity when in port - the combined effect of these measures could be a massive 40% reduction in fuel consumption.

In July, 55 ports around the world endorsed the World Ports Climate Declaration, in which they actively committed themselves to reduce CO2 emissions and improve air quality. A range of concrete measures is to be presented at the group's next conference in Los Angeles in November. Issues to be addressed include the development of CO2-footprints and a global indexing system that will enable ports reward clean and climate-friendly ships, and punish the polluters.

Meanwhile, in Libeck, Germany, a shore-side power supply has been installed for ships docked in the port. "As soon as the ships obtain the power they need via our shore-side power supply system, they can switch off their diesel generators while they're berthed in port. These diesel generators not only produce electrical power but also exhaust emissions, soot, particulate matters and noise, so in this way these ships will help to reduce "harbour smog" which is becoming an increasingly serious environmental problem in many port cities," said Ralf Christian at Siemens' Power Distribution Division, which developed the supply. Similar schemes are in place in Gothenburg, Zeebrugge, Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Another obvious avenue is the method that has been used to power ships for centuries - the wind. But the most promising options do not look much like the Cutty Sark. At least two companies - Kiteship of the US and Germany's Sky Sails - have developed systems for cargo ships that use giant kites. They claim they can improve fuel efficiency by up to 35% if the wind is right. They have the advantages of being quite cheap, simple to install and easy to retrofit to existing fleets.

There may be scope in future to use solar power to provide auxiliary power on giant tankers, which have a vast surface area available to place solar panels. But making solar panels sea-worthy is a considerable challenge. Gregory warns: "The sea is a cruel place. You have to make sure that whatever you have will work in 60-foot waves, so ship operators tend to be quite conservative about adopting new technology." Despite that, Japan's biggest shipping line, Nippon Yusen KK, and Nippon Oil Corp say they plan to put solar panels on a 60,000-tonne car carrier to be used by Toyota. This would cut the use of diesel to generate electricity by up to 6.5%. And it would cut CO2 emissions by 1-2%, according to Hideyuki Dohi, general manager at Nippon Oil's energy system development department.

Hybrid diesel-electric technology also has potential in certain applications. A US company called Foss is set to have its first hybrid tugboat on the water by the end of 2008. While initially it will cost 50% more than a conventional diesel tug, it will significantly cut SOx, NOx and CO2 emissions and make a big dent in fuel bills because when it is stationary, its engine will not be idling.

Shipping may have had a smooth passage on the environmental front so far, but the way ahead is likely to be more turbulent.

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