Our green ships
On Second thought'
By Thomas Timlen
Asia liaison officer,
Even though the United Nations Climate Change Conference wrapped up in Copenhagen in December, the challenges climate change creates and how these can be dealt with remain high on the agendas of practically all countries and special interest groups. Everyone is expected to implement environmentally friendly ways of going about their daily business.
Compared with other freight transport modes, ocean shipping has for decades provided the most efficient performance in respect to the ratio of pollutants produced per ton of cargo carried. As ship sizes have increased over the years, this ratio has become ever more difficult to match by other transport sectors. Similarly, continued innovations such as reintroducing sails on large cargo ships have helped to maintain ocean shipping's lead in terms of environmentally friendly transport.
Nonetheless major shipping industry players and associations are committed to identifying and implementing ever more environmentally friendly initiatives to further enhance the industry's eco-friendly operations. To ensure such goals are pursued in the most efficient manner, the industry favors the International Maritime Organization as the driving international regulator as solutions are identified, developed and implemented. As with most global challenges, there is no single silver bullet solution, but rather a number of available options that, when implemented in parallel, contribute towards protecting the environment.
While many examples support ocean shipping's role as the most economical and environmentally sound method of moving goods around the world, this industry is often forced on the defensive. Even its technical triumphs are somehow turned against it, whether it is angry debates questioning the rationale of very large containerships, somehow becoming arguments against world trade, or a triumphant Arctic voyage rebranded as a demonstration of global warming and melting icecaps.
The shipping industry has to ensure its own essential operations, which are so closely bound with global prosperity, are not prejudiced by ill-informed regulation driven by green politics. Shipping's representative organizations and its principal regulator, the IMO, have a huge responsibility in explaining and defending the industry's position, calmly reiterating realities, to counter often ignorant and prejudiced arguments.
Shipping is well aware of its environmental responsibilities, and can point to important and spectacular progress in the reduction of emissions such as sulphur and nitrous oxides and particulates that emerge as waste products from the combustion process.
International regulations are already in place and a mechanism available that are already affecting Baltic and European waters. Shipping is already doing its bit through the use of cleaner fuels and developing technical and operational methods of mitigation.
It has been suggested that marine diesel engines, whose manufacturers have focused on producing the maximum power with the cheapest available fuel, are, in terms of efficiency and emissions, in a similar position as the automobile engine of some 30 years ago. Just as the modern car engine is far more efficient and cleaner than its 1970s predecessor, so there is plenty of scope for spectacular improvement, and marine diesel engine manufacturers are already well down this road.
Employing waste heat from marine machinery onboard ship rather than releasing it into the atmosphere is a feature of engines coming into service. Employing shore power for ships in port, the use of scrubbing equipment to clean exhaust gases and even the development of 'hybrid' harbor craft like tugs that reduce harmful emissions, are all alternatives either available or being researched.
The industry, when it can get a word in against the barrage of criticism from the ill-informed, points out that it has a vested interest in technical efficiency, which can be hugely important in making shipping more sustainable, and in reducing greenhouse gases. Many shipping companies are not sitting back waiting for regulators, but instead are incorporating technical improvements into their own ships that improve fuel efficiency, reduce every sort of emission and the risk of pollution.
To take just one example, a new series of large containerships have slower running main engines, a better hull shape, bigger propellers and a waste heat recovery system that between them can reduce fuel consumption by nearly 23 percent.
There are roll-on/roll-off ships soon to be delivered that will burn liquefied natural gas in their engines; and ferries and offshore craft in operation already burning this clean fuel. These and many other pioneering vessels, owned by companies already pursuing strong environmental policies and initiatives, have far lower environmental footprints than their predecessors. Many of them will be more economical to operate, so who in the industry wouldn't welcome such worthwhile progress?
There is much that can be done to reduce the environmental footprint of existing ships. Keeping hulls clean, with better coatings, polishing the propeller regularly and optimizing draft and trim can be helpful. Keeping engines properly tuned is a major contributor to the efficiencies that improve sustainability. Focusing on many small efficiencies makes a big difference.
Substantial fuel savings and emission reductions can be made by operational, as opposed to mechanical, efficiencies. Ships can often be routed to avoid heavy weather or head winds. Timing passage to coincide arrival with cargo handling may be sometimes difficult to arrange, but offers real possibilities.
The shipping industry knows it is important to reduce its emissions, and is doing its part. Perhaps one day the world will have a better understanding and appreciation of the progress this industry has achieved.