Sustainable Trade: The Future of Shipping

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on October 17, 2017
Vicky Harris
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The device you are using to read this article, the clothes you are wearing, the chair you are sitting on, and even what you ate for breakfast all likely made a voyage aboard a ship to reach you. The volume of goods that travel by ship to their final destinations is massive. According to ICS (International Chamber of Shipping), 90% of world trade is carried by the international shipping industry aboard more than 100,000 merchant ships registered in over 150 countries. Their projections for the next decade have seaborne trade growing at double digits, partly driven by growing efficiency in the industry as well as economic liberalization policies around the world.


You are looking at the international super highway that brings your stuff home.

Our oceans are, in fact, a massive super highway that supports our way of living, and the shipping industry is catching up fast to ensure theirs is a sustainable industry. Like most growth industries, shipping has arrived at the point where their activity can have a detrimental effect on the global marine ecosystems and the Earth’s weather. In fact, shipping accounts for about 2.5% of global carbon emissions. Around busy hubs like Hong Kong, they are responsible for up to one-third of airborne pollutants. Better ways of managing routes, cleaner fuels, and innovative technology are emerging to propel ships towards no-compromise growth.

Ships and Lightning 

Last week, The Economist wrote an interesting article on a study published in Geophysical Research Letters by Joel Thornton of the University of Washington regarding the incidence of lightning strikes across shipping routes. Specifically, the article points out that the University of Washington study “demonstrates that lightning strikes the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea almost twice as often along shipping lanes as it does in other areas of these waters.”

This is a remarkable finding at multiple levels. One would imagine that these enormous metal boxes, which measure upwards of 400 meters in length, attract lightning in a storm when they are the only thing above the surface for many miles. However, the majority of the lightning strikes measured hit the ocean when no ship is around. As the article points out, “most of the extra bolts are hitting the sea rather than craft sailing across it.”

The most plausible explanation for this has to do with the ship’s fuel, in particular, fuel exhaust particles. Here is the study’s explanation:

“Marine diesel burned offshore is generally high in sulphur, and its combustion produces soluble oxides of that element which act as nuclei for the condensation of cloud-forming droplets. Typical marine clouds in unpolluted areas are composed of large droplets and do not rise to high altitude, but Dr. Thornton and his team reckon that smaller droplets, of the sort that condense around oxides of sulphur, might more easily be carried upward by convection—forming, as they rose, into towering storm clouds that would act as nurseries of lightning bolts.”

Lightning maps of those regions mark where the container ship routes are with incredible precision because their fuel exhaust creates the perfect conditions for them. This remarkable study concludes that merchant ships tend to create their own storms.

Sustainable Shipping is on the Agenda 

The direct connection between industrial shipping and weather would be a cause for concern were it not for changes that are already underway in the industry. First, as The Economist explains, the industry’s bunker fuel (the residual fuel left over from oil refineries containing mercury and heavy metals) has an average sulphur content of 2.7% today, but “from 2020 that should fall to 0.5% if refiners and ship owners obey rules being introduced by the International Maritime Organization.”

Secondly, ships slow down to reduce their fuel consumption; this practice has worked quite well for Maersk Line, one of the giants in the industry. They have cut fuel consumption “by 42% since 2007” by simply slowing down their container ships, as reported by The Economist.

Finally, technological innovation on several fronts promises to make container ships even more efficient and sustainable. Some ships are already using solar energy to power electronics on board, such as refrigeration for food and medicine containers. Hydrogen 2.0, which is clean energy produced on-site, 24/7, from water (which surrounds ships) can also provide plenty of energy for on-board electricity and propulsion (though heating), thus, helping ships avoid the need to slow down to save fuel.

The Future is Mixed

The container ship of the future will mimic how other big energy users, like utilities, are beginning to approach energy. Through a diversified mix of fuel sources—from cleaning traditional fossil fuels to solar, wind and hydrogen—the shipping industry is steaming ahead to maximize their efficiency and minimize their environmental impact. On the horizon is a mixed energy future that will stop lightning clouds from chasing cargo ships.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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