Putting Wind in Trade's Sails

by |February 27, 2012

By David Craig

RA 66 Helio on the Untersee, a part of Lake Constance. The solar-powered catamaran is based in Radolfzell.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, more than 80 percent of the world’s trade is transported by sea. With the global cargo fleet nearing 100,000 ships, renewable energy technologies make possible substantial reductions in long-term costs to both the environment and shipping industry. While merchant shipping is responsible for only 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions, it serves as a model industry for international cooperation in addressing global warming.

Despite the occasional dispute over territorial waters, cooperation on maritime issues has been an area of continued success at regional and global levels in the Post-WWII era. Consider the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the UNEP Regional Seas Program, or the Antarctic Treaty.

The success of these agreements suggests regional or global negotiations over a limited issue such as reducing maritime transport emissions may prove far more successful than the distressing yearly debacle of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), most recently held in Durban, South Africa. Perhaps just as important as addressing climate change is getting a policy ‘win’ under the belt of the global community to build confidence while giving the agenda some much needed momentum.

Large container ships are traditionally not subject to the same environmental regulations as other vehicles. As a consequence, they often burn heavy bunker oil, a thick fuel of the lowest grade that is contaminated with numerous dangerous toxins including lead and mercury. In fact, the 15 largest container ships in the world release more sulfur dioxide, a gas responsible for acid rain, than all the worlds cars combined. Shipping emissions nearly double those of the airline industry. And, as a result of the expansion of global trade, these emissions are expected to increase by at least 75% in the next 15 years.

In terms of container ships, each member of the global fleet possesses large surface areas exposed to the sun, when the weather permits, and travels through some of the world’s strongest winds. Through a combination of solar cells, kite sails, batteries and a number of experimental technologies including wave harvesting, solar sails, water friction reduction, and biofuels, reductions can be expected with real gains to the economy.

Recent tests using vast sails and kites have shown these heavy ships can reduce energy consumption by 10 to 35 percent using wind power alone. With the addition of solar cells, lithium batteries and the other technologies listed above, it seems more than reasonable to imagine cutting the average containerships fuel emissions by at least 25 percent by 2025.

With the appropriate incentives and governmental support, the benefits of maritime energy innovation will eventually make its way into the rest of the world’s ships. Further, with the gains made in large scale renewable technologies in the maritime industry, applications for similar technology on skyscrapers and large scale clean energy plants will provide further gains.

A UN conducted negotiation process on a much more specialized environmental topic as maritime shipping should prove far easier to handle than the all-encompassing UNFCCC. Success here may have gains for the environment, the economy, and boost international negotiations related to global climate change.

David Craig is an intern at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation

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Mike from power generators
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If large cargo ships became subjected to the same environmental regulations as other vehicles and their engines underwent upgrades so that they no longer burned heavy bunker oil and emitted dangerous toxins, that in itself would be a major step. Because from what I understand from the article it is not so much the quantity (a mere 4%) as the quality of the emissions coming out of the shipping industry.