The shipping industry contributes around 3% of global carbon emissions. But little effort has been made to cut this carbon – regulation within the industry is complex and no country wants to be the first to take responsibility.
Carbon control is not the only issue. Climate change will also alter patterns of crop production. Today's international trade routes which see wheat shipped from North America to Europe or coffee from Africa to Australia may shift. New weather patterns, rising sea levels and the disappearance of Arctic ice will also alter navigation.
As part of the Shipping in Changing Climates (SCC) project, researchers from Tyndall Manchester want to develop scenarios of these climate-driven changes across the globe. They also hope to highlight promising new technologies to cut ship emissions. Combining these two strands of research, SCC will assess how the shipping industry should adapt. What must the shipping industry do today to prepare for this uncertain future?
“Such a multi-pronged approach is truly unique,” says Dr Alice Larkin the Principal Investigator of the Manchester team’s analysis within the project. “To make the scenarios to explore how futures might emerge we will integrate a variety of quantitative models and tools with literature reviews and qualitative interviews and workshops with industry stakeholders.”
The team will begin by exploring which political, economic and resource related factors drove the development of trade routes over the past hundred years. Having identified key drivers, they will consider future scenarios as the abundance and location of food, fuel and other resources changes, both in the face of a changing climate, and in response to policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions from other sectors.
“Over half of the goods that UK imports by ship are fossil fuels,” notes Dr Larkin. “And with European legislation driving emissions cuts, we can expect this trade in fossil-fuels to decline, with a potential increase in the trade of biofuels and biomass. But the key question is this: will Britain be an importer or exporter, and what does that mean for our shipping trade?”
Her SCC colleagues will soon begin analysing the potential for alternative propulsion systems to reduce fuel consumption by ships. One plan is to harness the phenomenal power of the high winds of the open ocean with sails, solar sails and even kites. A hybrid solution is to combine sails with biofuel and slow steaming – the idea that slow moving ships burn less fuel – to slash ship emissions by as much as 80%.
“These new technologies are very promising,” says Dr Larkin. “It is exciting to know that shipping – unlike aviation - has alternative options to biofuel and this gives us more room to play with.”
The urgency of the research cannot be underestimated. Low lying ports are already seeing the effects of climate change as sea level rises generate greater storm swells that put ports at risk. However, melting sea ice may also open a corridor through the Arctic and establish shorter trade routes.
The SCC scientists expect to develop scenarios for all of these changes. “It is a challenging task”, says Dr Larkin, “but the industry needs to act now in an informed way rather than reacting when it is too late.”