Environmental Performance of Maritime Sector – A Critical Analysis

The international maritime shipping industry being one of the most important sources of international trade needs to revise its operating mechanisms. Such revisions are required to mitigate environmental concerns originating from the industry. Though the maritime sector is slowly transforming towards environment friendly alternatives, it still needs to implement the regulations given by international organizations.

Transporting 80% of global trade by volume and over 70% of global trade by value, maritime transport is considered to be the backbone of international trade and economy. Shipping consumes about 250-300MT of fuel annually, which approximately amounts to 4% of global oil demand. Consequently, international shipping accounts for 2.2% of the global Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. According to recent evidence, shipping generates harmful emissions to human health like nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide. The fuel used for shipping is considered to be the most polluting in comparison to the fuel utilized in other transports. According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), if CO2 emissions are not capped, it could grow between 50 to 250% by 2050. Additionally, international shipping could also be responsible for 17% of worldwide CO2 emissions by 2050.

The maritime industry is well aware of its environmental impact. Therefore, IMO has not only given environmental targets to be met by 2050 but has also put forth greener strategies.

Sulphur content of maritime oil is another major pollutant which needs to be immediately reduced. Although Emission Control Areas (ECA) have been introduced to limit the sulphur content of maritime oil, still this maritime content level is higher than that used in road vehicles. Thus the target set by IMO is to cut the sulphur content in heavy oil, ranging from 0.5 to 3.5%. These emissions released in the atmosphere are contributing to global warming and can cause acid rain and pose danger to human health.

The maritime industry is well aware of its environmental impact. Therefore, IMO has not only given environmental targets to be met by 2050 but has also put forth greener strategies. These strategies are regarding reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and content of pollutants emitted from international shipping. Cleaner and greener shipping can be ensured by regulatory work alongside capacity building measures. For that purpose, regulations have been adopted regarding emissions of air pollutants from ships.

The GHG strategy adopted by the IMO in 2018 conforms to zero emissions. For achieving that objective, the industry first must peak as early as possible according to the directions. Secondly, it should move on towards reduction by at least 50% of 2008 levels in its total annual GHG emissions by 2050.

Under the IMO’s pollution prevention treaty (MARPOL) energy efficiency measures have been taken up in order to reduce GHG emissions from international shipping. The ships built in 2025 will be 30% more energy efficient than those built in 2014. This would be possible due to the improvement in the current ships in terms of energy efficiency. These energy regulations are binding for all countries. According to IMO’s given targets, for the reduction of sulphur levels, scrubbers or exhaust gas cleaning systems are advised to be used.

Besides, the Getting to Zero Coalition is an alliance of more than 120 companies aiming to get commercially viable deep sea zero emission vessels. The coalition plans to power these vessels by zero emission fuels and put them into operation by 2030. This moon-shot ambition of maritime shipping builds on the Call for Action in Support of Decarbonisation. The document is signed by more than 70 leaders from across the maritime industry. If maritime shipping becomes a viable source of zero emission fuels then the industry can  potentially bring in investments. These investments can be for the energy projects of developing and middle-income countries. Therefore, for the implementation of these measures, IMO is engaging in capacity building projects and supporting technology transfer as well. This includes the inclusive approach of shipping industry by adapting the changes brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

In addition to the notable changes brought by previous industrial revolutions, technological innovation is also being adopted. For instance, technological innovation is incorporated in the form of artificial intelligence, robotics, Internet of Things, and autonomous vehicles. The results brought by systematic shipping network and satellite navigation are enabling the concept of smart shipping. Such satellite navigation refers to navigation via informatisation of third revolution combined with fourth generation technologies. The inclusion of autonomous ships, e-navigation, and smart ports are the key elements of smart shipping. The key objective behind smart shipping is not only economic and environmental sustainability but also cost-effectiveness, productivity improvement, and enhanced safety.

Furthermore, solutions to limit sulphur, carbon and GHG emissions which are not necessarily mutually exclusive could help the industry cut emissions. Slow steaming will navigate ships at slow speeds, reducing their fuel consumption. Incremental measures like improvement of hull design, propeller optimization and waste heat recovery would cause the sector lesser disruption. Moreover, it would help to reduce emissions in multiple ways. For energy storage purposes, batteries and cold ironing could be utilized.

The maritime sector is of crucial significance but the sector has been unilaterally investing in decarbonizing shipping. The world has witnessed great economic drop in trade following 2008 financial crash. The global economy is undergoing one such Great Depression-like scenario while fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments and interest groups should not make the same mistake of rebuilding post-pandemic economy by reverting back to carbon-intensive ways. They should incentivize demonstration projects and accelerate the technology development of zero-carbon vessels. The domestic vessels should be replaced with zero-carbon alternatives. Moreover, shipyards and sea vessels should be prepared for zero-emission once demand starts picking up post-COVID-19.

Rida Anwar

Rida Anwar is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She has studied International Relations from the National Defence University, Islamabad.

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