Beyond COVID-19: Investing in a Sustainable Future for Shipping

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Published May 5, 2020 9:39 PM by Asbjørn Halsebakke

We can’t celebrate a pandemic. People are dying. Economies are crashing. Unemployment rates are rocketing. We are distanced – from those we love, but also from our immediate past. Life as we know it has been turned upside down. So, we can’t celebrate. But nature can.

Instant impact

As we have retreated into our homes, the natural world has come out to play. Coyotes near the Golden Gate Bridge, goats walking down once crowded city streets, bees buzzing with excitement as wildflowers blossom…such stories are emerging online, on screens and in print every day.

Nature, it seems, is rejoicing.

If it feels like a breath of fresh air to read positive news, it is, quite literally. One of the key factors in the decline of our economic activity and motorised movement is the drop in air pollution. According to CarbonBrief, lower power demand and the slowdown in manufacturing in the EU could cause emissions to fall by nearly 400 million tonnes this year. In China alone, some 250 million tonnes were saved between February and mid-March. 
That’s more than half of the total annual emissions of the UK.

A raft of countries are recording dramatic drops of up to 40% in CO2 and nitrogen levels, greatly improving air quality and personal health. This is particularly noteworthy as, staggeringly, the WHO notes that 7 million people a year die as a result of air pollution. A truly catastrophic figure that seems to have somehow slipped by the mainstream media.

The new normal?

For a world that many environmental experts fear is teetering on its tipping point, these reductions – and the immediate benefits they release – are unequivocally good news. We have been offered a glimpse of what can happen when fossil fuel consumption is stripped back to the bones. Nature responds, gloriously.

So, maybe this crisis is an opportunity. Just as we must adopt a ‘new normal’ in terms of our social interaction, is it possible to adjust with respect to energy consumption and the impact our activities have on the world around us?

If we roar back to our ‘old ways’ of operation – making up for lost ground and taking advantage of rock-bottom oil prices – then the environmental losses will be just as spectacular as our recent gains. 

And that tipping point will look ever more precarious.

We can’t afford to do that. We need to change. And shipping has a leading role to play.

Emission ambition

Shipping, as the primary driver of world trade, is a major polluter. In terms of the sheer scale of goods moved, it is actually a relatively carbon efficient mode of transport, but it still accounts for a whopping 940 million tonnes of CO2 annually and around 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, GHG. So, there is much work to be done.

The IMO is on the case, setting a target of cutting GHG emissions by 50% (compared to 2008 levels) by 2050, with the overall aim of eliminating them entirely. However, this ambition needs support, from both governments with the right funding initiatives and the industry, which needs to invest in greener technology and more sustainable fuel sources. But, and this is a big but, there is a perception that this is expensive.

When shipowners throughout the industry are struggling to survive from one day to the next, dedicating capital expenditure to clean technology seems like a luxury few can afford. The reality, however, is that they can’t afford not to.

Good business

Complying with increasingly strict regulations is one thing, but there is a sound business case for adopting cleaner, greener technology.

Tried and tested technology that is available today, such as The Switch’s own DC-Hub and permanent magnet machines, can help make huge efficiency gains on vessels, reducing fuel burn by up to 35 percent and cutting maintenance costs by between 10 and 20 percent. Less fuel means less emissions, which is as crucial for forward-thinking shipowners and their customers as it is for the environment. We live in an age of increasingly environmentally conscious consumers and societies. Shipping companies that don’t stay in step with that will pay a heavy price.

And then there’s the question of OPEX. Regardless of the fluctuations in oil price, fuel accounts for the lion’s share of running costs for most vessels. But if you adopt technology that allows your fleet to consume less, you obviously save more – giving your company a competitive advantage in an increasingly tight market. In other words you unlock commercial as well as environmental sustainability.

As a result, such technology is not expensive. It is cheap. Typical ROI for green tech solutions from The Switch ranges between two and three years.

A flexible future

The transition away from fossil fuels is already happening, regardless of corona. We can see that on our roads with the growing numbers of electric vehicles. My home country of Norway provides a compelling case study, with electric cars accounting for 42 percent of cars sold in 2019. Tesla’s Model 3 comfortably outsold everything else. Trends on water are, as ever, now playing catch up, with hybrid and all-electric vessels increasingly common.

But, unlike road users, we need greater flexibility. Ships are long-term assets and fuel developments, and mixes, are constantly evolving.

We can be certain that fossil fuels will fade, but what will replace them is more of an unknown quantity, with ammonia, hydrogen and a variety of renewable and synthetic fuel sources likely to jostle for hegemony. The secret then is to future-proof vessels by ensuring they can run on a variety of fuels, employing systems – such as the aforementioned DC-Hub – that can incorporate any fuel source to satisfy vessel needs. By employing technology that is open to change and progression, we can ensure we’re not chained to the fuels of the past. That puts us all in the best position for the future.

World of opportunity

This crisis is shaking the foundations of our global society, causing almost immeasurable pain and hardship to individuals, families and businesses across the globe. But it is also giving us a rare moment of reflection – the chance to see the world in a different light, with a new, clearer perspective.

We’ve all witnessed how quickly we can change, what we can achieve when we work together, and what is truly important. And in the long term, nothing is as vital as the health and well-being of our planet – a planet that we’ve seen has the ability to thrive when we give it the chance to.

Let’s not go back to our old ways. The new normal can be cleaner, greener and more sustainable, for business and for nature. This is an opportunity we have to seize. This is a future worth investing in.

Asbjørn Halsebakke is Product Manager for Yaskawa Environmental Energy / The Switch. 

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