Cargo Ships, Climate Change and a Can-Do Approach

Maritime industry opportunities exist amid the challenges of reducing our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions

climate change and can do
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Published Jul 6, 2021 12:52 PM by Susan Hayman

The daunting challenges of the maritime industry as it contends with climate change will arguably be the most important we have ever faced. We are at a serious inflection point, and I am grateful President Biden has prioritized climate action as a cornerstone of his presidency. 

The President wants to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) in the U.S. by 52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. This fits into his broader vision of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. These targets dwarf any previous U.S. administration’s commitment, including President Obama’s. 

In April, John Kerry, the president’s special envoy for climate, expanded on what this means for the shipping industry. Mr. Kerry committed the U.S. “to work with countries in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to adopt the goal of achieving zero emissions from international shipping by 2050.”

While the industry was anticipating aggressive proposals, the scope of the commitment caught many off guard.

As the policies are developed, it is important we communicate our position of environmental strength. Moving cargo by water is the most carbon-efficient form of transportation. Logic dictates a shift from other forms of transportation to waterborne will reduce carbon emissions. This represents an opportunity to expand cargo options for the maritime sector.

However, global shipping still represents a significant source of air, water and acoustic pollution. All must be addressed, but climate change is especially correlated with air pollution which includes GHG emissions. The current estimate of GHG emissions from global maritime transport is thought to be between two and three percent of the total from all sources. For context, this is roughly the same as the entire GHG emissions of Canada or Germany.

The maritime industry is comprised of remarkably diverse fleets, including ocean-going vessels, ferries, and tug and barge fleets operating on our inland and coastal waterways.  Although this diversity is one of the strengths of our industry, it also effectively precludes any “one size fits all” climate solution.

Efforts to mitigate, if not solve, our industry’s impact on climate change will be most impactful if they are timed with capital commitments. Given the comparatively long life-cycle of maritime assets, most physical mitigation solutions and efficiency designs should be incorporated into the ship design well before any building has begun.

I have been an advocate of hybrid solutions, as these designs reduce all emissions because the main engine is used less and more efficiently. Power is replaced by more efficient power generators to meet the needs of the operator. Although hybrid solutions often require more capital outlay, there is payback for the operator in terms of reduced fuel and maintenance costs.  Though effective, this solution may not be appropriate for all vessel types as the duty cycle of the engine is an important consideration when deciding whether a hybrid solution is feasible.

No one understands the problems we face and the solutions we need to adopt better than those working in our industry. However, our inclusion in high-level policy dialogues means opening our minds and re-thinking everything including those “sacred cows” our industry has held on to for so long. Nothing should be off-limits and that includes more than just the obvious puzzle pieces of ship design, the fuels we use to power the vessels, and shore interfaces. Shipboard operational aspects need to be re-examined across the board, from speed reductions to the lightbulbs we use.

The climate challenges are great, but so are the opportunities. A shift to more waterborne cargo transportation will provide new opportunities to increase the US flag fleet, create new skilled jobs for merchant mariners, and reduce traffic on our overloaded highways. Currently, the Maritime Administration (MARAD) works with state and local governments to increase “America’s Marine Highways”.

Despite climate change related hurdles we must overcome, there are opportunities as well. I am optimistic for the future of our industry. We have sophisticated tools and ready access to data that, if properly harnessed, will bring about solutions we have not even thought of yet. Coupled with American ingenuity  and coordinated policies applied across all industry sectors – including ours – I believe our nation will significantly reduce its GHG emissions and show the world that it can be done.

Susan Hayman has held senior positions in environmental affairs with two maritime transportation companies, Foss Maritime and  APL. She is a graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy and received an MBA from Harvard Business School. She spearheaded the development of the hybrid-powered, low-emissions tug, which entered service early in 2009.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.