It’s one of the world’s busiest container shipping routes – a stream of ships loaded with furniture, cars, clothing and other goods, traversing the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles and Shanghai.
If plans succeed, this corridor will become a showcase for reducing CO2 emissions from the shipping industry, which produces nearly 3% of the world’s total. That’s less than cars, trucks, rail or aviation, but still a lot – and it’s rising.
The International Maritime Organization, which regulates commercial shipping, aims to halve greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of this century and is likely to make deeper cuts this year. “The shipping industry must embrace decarbonisation,” IMO Secretary General Kitack Lim said in February.
Significant changes to the vessel and infrastructure are required to meet the agencies’ objectives. These are inspiring plans for “green shipping corridors” along important routes where new technologies and methods can be accelerated and scaled up.
More than 20 of these partnerships have been proposed. They are largely on paper now, but are expected to take shape in the coming years. The goal: to unite marine fuel producers, ship owners and operators, cargo owners and ports in a joint effort.
Los Angeles and Shanghai formed their partnership last year.
“The vision is for a container to leave a factory on a zero-emission truck[in China],” said Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles.
“It will arrive at the port of Shanghai, be loaded onto a ship by zero-emission cargo handling equipment and cross the Pacific Ocean on a zero-carbon ship. Once it gets to Los Angeles, the reverse happens,” with carbon-free handling and distribution.
Los Angeles signed a second deal in April with nearby Long Beach and Singapore. Others in the works include Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River; a Chilean network; and countless corridors in Asia, North America and Europe.
C40 Cities, a global climate action coalition of mayors, advocates green corridors as “tools that can turn ambition into action and bring together the entire shipping value chain,” said Deputy Director Alisa Kreynes.
But Kreynes issued a cautionary note: “I can’t help but wonder how much of it is PR and how much of it will actually become practice. It requires a cultural shift in thinking about how we get things from point A to point B.”
New approaches developed in green corridors can quickly deliver results, says John Bradshaw, technical director for environment and safety at the World Shipping Council. “I am confident that the industry will reach zero emissions by 2050.”
From tea to tennis shoes, items in your pantry and closets have likely spent time on a ship.
About 90% of traded goods are transported by water, some in behemoths longer than four football fields, each containing thousands of containers of consumer products. About 58,000 commercial ships ply the seas.
Their emissions are less noticeable than those from land-based carriers such as trucks, although noxious fumes from ships are a cause for complaint in port communities.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the volume of maritime trade is expected to triple by 2050. Studies predict that industry’s share of greenhouse gas emissions could be as high as 15%.
Yet the 2015 Paris climate agreement exempts ocean shipping, in part because ships do business globally, while the agreement addresses country-by-country targets.
“Nobody wants to take responsibility,” says Allyson Browne of Pacific Environment, an advocacy group. “A ship may fly the Chinese flag, but who owns the emissions from that ship when it carries goods to the US?”
The IMO responded to the mounting pressure with a 2018 plan for a 50% reduction in emissions from 2008 levels by the middle of this century. An update scheduled for July could set more ambitious targets that the US, Europe and small island states prefer. Opponents are Brazil, China and India.
The Biden administration wants a zero-emissions target, a State Department official told The Associated Press.
But less than half of the major shipping companies have committed to meet international carbon targets. And there is no consensus on how to achieve them.
Proposals range from slowing down ships to taxing emission allowances, as the European Union did last year.
“Global shipping is difficult to decarbonise because of the energy it takes to travel long distances with heavy loads,” said Lee Kindberg, chief environmental and sustainability officer for Maersk North America, part of AP Moller-Maersk, which more than 700 ships. “It takes some searching, but we consider it feasible.”
Mechanical sails. Batteries. Low-carbon or carbon-free liquid fuels.
They are among the propulsion methods touted as a replacement for “bunker fuel” that powers most commercial vessels – thick residue from oil refining. It emits greenhouse gases and pollutants that endanger human health: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, soot.
Finding alternatives will be a priority for green shipping corridors.
For now, liquefied natural gas is the volatile choice. Globally, it is used by 923 of 1,349 commercial ships that do not run on conventional fuels, according to a survey last year by DNV, a Norway-based maritime accreditation organization. Ships with batteries or hybrid systems came a long way behind.
Many environmentalists oppose LNG because it emits methane, another potent greenhouse gas. Advocates say it is the fastest and most cost-effective replacement for bunker fuel.
Of the 1,046 alternative energy vessels on order, 534 are powered by LNG, while 417 are battery hybrids, DNV reported. Thirty-five others will use methanol, which analysts view as an emerging cleaner alternative.
Moller-Maersk plans to launch 12 freighters next year that will use “green methanol” produced from renewable resources such as plant waste. A number of his ships are powered by a biodiesel made from used cooking oil.
The company is participating in research that could lead to ammonia or hydrogen-powered ships by the mid-2030s.
“This is the first step towards transforming our fleet into something much more climate-friendly,” said Kindberg.
Norsepower offers a new twist on an old technology: wind.
The Finnish company has developed “rotor sails” – composite cylinders about 30 meters high that mount on ship decks and turn in the wind. Air pressure differences on either side of the buzzing devices help push a ship forward.
An independent analysis found that rotorsails installed on a Maersk oil tanker in 2018 delivered fuel savings of 8.2% in a year. Norsepower CEO Tuomas Riski said others have saved 5% to 25%, depending on wind conditions, vessel type and other factors.
Thirteen ships are using the devices or have them on order, Riski said.
“Mechanical sails play an essential role in decarbonising shipping,” he said. “They can’t do it alone, but they can make a big contribution.”
Fleetzero claims that electric ships are best suited to decarbonize the industry. The company was founded in Alabama two years ago to build freighters with rechargeable battery packs.
CEO Steven Henderson says it envisions a fleet of smaller, more maneuverable ships than huge container ships. They would call at ports that have freshly charged batteries to exchange for batteries that are low. Fleetzero’s prototype ship will begin delivering cargo later this year.
WHO GOES FIRST?
Before companies build or buy low-emission ships, they want assurance that clean fuels are available and affordable.
Companies that produce the fuels, meanwhile, want enough ships to use them to ensure strong markets.
And both need port infrastructure that can accommodate new-generation ships, such as electrical connections and clean fuel delivery mechanisms.
But ports wait for demand to justify such expensive upgrades. Switching cargo handling equipment and trucks ashore to zero-emission models will cost the Port of Los Angeles $20 billion, officials say.
“Once you put a (green) corridor on the map,” says Jason Anderson, senior program director for the nonprofit ClimateWorks Foundation, “at least they’re going in the same direction.”
Success will require government regulation and corridor funding, along with support from customers in the shipping industry, said Jing Sun, a professor of marine engineering at the University of Michigan.
“Shipping is the most cost-effective way to move things,” Sun said.
An organization called Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels promises to use only emission-free shipping companies by 2040. Among the 19 signatories are Amazon, Michelin and Target.
“If large corporate buyers come together and say this has to be done, the rest of the chain has the confidence to make the necessary investments,” said Ingrid Irigoyen, a deputy director of the nonprofit Aspen Institute, who helped put together from the group.
Follow John Flesher on Twitter: @JohnFlesher
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