Do you remember your first Motorola Razr cell phone, that imported curry sauce, or those “Made in China” toys from when you were a kid? Almost everything we use these days is from the opposite side of the world. It comes as no surprise that about 90% of international trade is carried by sea, which, for years, has been the most affordable and efficient method for transporting cargo.
Unfortunately, cargo ships run on the not-so-nice cousin of the fuel in our car tanks. Bunker fuel is made from the residues of gas refineries, and is full of sulphur. This chemical has critically negative impacts on our respiratory health when burned and has especially noxious effects on those living near highly trafficked shipping routes.
Alongside the deleterious health effects, cargo boats are big environmental bullies as well. One ship’s average length is 400m – the equivalent of 8 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and can produce as many emissions as 50 million cars annually. The emissions of the 15 largest vessels equate to all vehicle combustion worldwide. In fact, if the industry were taken as a country, it would be the 6th biggest emitter of CO2, wedged between Japan and Germany at 1.2 billion metric tonnes.
Luckily, policy-makers have begun to shake their heads at the evident health and environmental impacts of these ships. The UN’s International Maritime Organization has pledged to cut the sulphur in bunker fuel from the current 3.7% down to 0.5% by 2020 – an ambitious 86% decrease in concentration.
The cap will largely reduce the sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions of the industry, which currently contribute to 13% and 15% respectively of global greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, a recent study in the journal Nature found that a reduction in cargo ship emissions could decrease ship-related premature deaths by 34%, and would spare 7.6 million cases of childhood asthma globally each year.
Bunker fuel faces some heavy cleaning in the next two years, meaning that a price tag is sure to follow. However, some companies have seen this challenge as an opportunity for innovation. Creative designs have sprung up in the industry, including the EcoMarine Wind-Solar Ship, the Flettner Rotor Ship and the Port Liner.
The EcoMarine has a unique, rigid sail system that harnesses both wind and solar energy to cover its power needs. Designed in 1922, the Flettner Rotor ship is an oldie but a goodie, using rotating vertical wind cylinders for propulsion. Finally, the Port Liner, also known as the “Tesla of the Canals”, is the first totally electric and emission-free ship. It is set to roam the canals of Belgium and the Netherlands this fall, boasting an 8% greater carrying capacity than traditional ships and sparing 23,000 transport trucks from European highways.
Effectively, the shipping industry is in for some big changes in the upcoming years. The innovation and creativity that has already sprung up facing these changing circumstances is inspiring. These and other thoughtful designs are sure to elicit positive changes in the industry, enabling a dramatic impact on global emissions, and in turn on human and marine health everywhere.
Did you know that one cargo ship emits the same amount as 50 million cars annually?