Sailing on the Seven Seas

Features editor

The latest UN climate talks in Cancun haven’t attracted as much attention as the previous summit, COP15 in Copenhagen, but they could have a surprisingly large impact on the engineering sector. They have focused attention on a sector which has, so far, largely escaped the environmental regulations that other industries have had to cope with: shipping.

Long seen as the most environmentally friendly form of transport, the world’s merchant fleet is, nonetheless, a large emitter of carbon dioxide and other air and sea pollutants. While individual ships are, themselves, efficient, there is a very large number of them; for many products of the engineering industry, such as cars, oil, and other large and bulky products, they are the only way to get them from their manufacturing sites to their markets.

The range of pollutants emitted by shipping is quite surprising. While land and air transport switched some years ago to ‘clean fuels’ — that is, low-sulphur grades of hydrocarbons — and engine designers have expended much effort in tuning engines to reduce the amount of particulates and nitrogen oxides produced during combustion, many ships still use thick, viscous heavy fuel oil. It has to be heated up to persuade it to flow; it often contains higher levels of sulphur that would be tolerated on land or in the air. Often, ships switch to cleaner fuels when they are approaching a coast or port. Even so, the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted by shipping is estimated at around a gigatonne per year — more than the UK.

The government representatives at Cancun have discussed levying docking charges which vary according to the level of emissions produced by a ship, while a non-governmental organisation headed by Richard Branson, called the Carbon War Room, has used data from international registers and the International Marine Organisation (IMO) to compile a list of carbon emissions for 60,000 merchant ships. The idea behind this scheme is for businesses to be able to choose the lowest-emission vessels to carry their goods.

Meanwhile, more and more marine areas are being designated marine emissions control zones. With the Baltic and the North Sea leading the way and the entire coast of North America to a distance of 200 nautical miles to follow, ships entering these areas will have to comply to strict and tightening limits on the amount of sulphur and nitrogen oxides and particulates they emit, with the effect of improving coastal air quality and reducing the incidence of respiratory disease in and around ports.

Costs for improvements to the performance of shipping will, no doubt, be passed on to their clients, the manufacturers; they will, of course, pass it on to their customers. Ultimately, we’ll all pay something towards this cost, whether it’s in the price of a new car, a gallon of petrol, or anything made of plastic. But even carbon sceptics should be able to see the necessity of these changes. Ultimately, they’ll make ships more fuel efficient — reducing long-term running costs and making better use of increasingly scarce fossil fuels — and will improve health.

The Carbon War Room is particularly intriguing. Will the shipping companies’ customers choose to exercise their choice and go for the more efficient ships? Or will the bottom line prevail? We’ll watch the results of this experiment with interest.