Ship boat

Supply chain chaos causes ship emissions to jump – Quartz

The post-pandemic shopping spree in the United States is not only breaking the supply chain, it is wreaking havoc on the environment. Ships chasing record container prices are speeding across the ocean to load as often as they can, increasing emissions at the fastest rate since 2008.

Container ships, like those that move goods from ports in Asia to the United States, accelerate up to 22% faster in good weather and use more fuel, said Mike Konstantinidis, CEO of METIS Cyberspace Technology, a Greek company that analyzes data on the movement of ships.

Once a ship arrives, unprecedented congestion in overflowing ports leaves a record number of idling ships in the water, pumping pollution into neighborhoods surrounding the ports. A study (pdf) published on November 16 by the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore estimated that ship emissions at the Port of Los Angeles doubled between July 2020 and 2021, and increased by 123% in Singapore. The most dramatic increases in emissions have come from ships serving US demand, with container ship emissions at the port up 94%, while for bulk carriers, freighters used primarily for coal or grain, they have increased. increased by 140%.

Port pollution has been found to increase the incidence of asthma and cancer in children, contributing to an estimated 1,300 premature deaths per year in neighborhoods around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, such as the LA council member Nithya Raman pointed out when the city voted in favor of a resolution calling for ships in the city’s ports to be zero carbon by 2030.

Once the ships have unloaded their cargo, they quickly return to ports in China to take another load of cargo. METIS estimates an overall increase in total annual emissions of 15%, between 2020 and 2021. “If no measures are adopted, emissions from maritime transport are expected to increase considerably, even up to 250% until 2050,” said Konstantinidis.

The supply chain crisis is set to set back a decade of progress in reducing the carbon intensity of shipping, measuring the amount of CO2 emitted for every nautical mile per tonne of freight traveled, as well as global emissions increase.

Before the pandemic, slow steam reduced emissions

In the economic slump after the 2008 recession, shipping companies earned less than $ 2,000 per container and made low profits. To save on fuel costs, ships began to slow down in a practice called slow-steaming. Just by slowing down (pdf), with a few other engine adjustments, ships can burn less marine fuel, thus reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

Huge container ships were crossing the sea at 12 or 14 nautical miles per hour (knots), rather than 24 or 26 knots. The Pacific crossing could take six weeks or more, significantly slowing deliveries, but shipping companies were happy to save money and the overall carbon intensity fell by 31% between 2008 and 2019. However, due to ” an increase in the number of ships and trips, overall emissions (pdf) nonetheless increased from 962 million tonnes in 2012 to 1.05 billion tonnes in 2018.

Slow steam can reduce a ship’s carbon intensity by 30 to 50 percent, according to Nishatabbas Rehmatulla, senior researcher at University College London Energy Institute.

But it is also avoidable. Even though ships steadily emitted less carbon in the decade leading up to the pandemic, Rehmatulla noticed that the engines of the new ships were built larger than necessary for slow steam navigation. This meant that the ships “were going to be able to accelerate when the conditions were right,” Rehmatulla said. “And right now, these are the conditions we find ourselves in with the supply chain.”

As U.S. demand increased in the pandemic and supply chain chaos pushed container prices to record highs of over $ 10,000, shipping companies were sweeping away the environmental benefits of slow steam.

What do faster ships mean for the environment?

The shipping industry emits about 3% of the world’s greenhouse gases, more than all but five of the countries. The current surge in emissions may have long-term consequences for the shipping industry’s ability to stay in line with the Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperatures below 1.5 ° C.

So far, the industry has used up half of the remaining carbon budget it can use to stay within that target, according to James Mason, a transport researcher at the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research. low carbon emission. Before this year’s supply chain crisis, the industry had 14 years to issue at its average rate before exceeding the 1.5 ° C target. “If emissions increase in the short term due to the increased speeds,” Mason said, then there is even less time.

The longer the industry delays in reducing its emissions, the more drastic the necessary measures are to stay below the 1.5 ° C target. This can mean scrapping fossil fuel-burning ships earlier than the standard lifespan of around 25 years, or absorbing the costs of expensive carbon-free fuels before scale drives prices down. But, Mason said, it raises the question of feasibility – if decarbonization is more difficult, industry may be less likely to achieve it.

Climate benefits vs commitments

In October, nine major retailers, including Amazon, IKEA and Inditex, the company that owns Zara, announced a call to gradually shift to using zero-carbon ships to ship their goods. The announcement did not include a plan to build zero emission ships or the infrastructure to support them, but was seen as an important signal to shipowners that there was demand from the world’s largest retailers for ships. zero emission.

These retailers have considerable influence and responsibility to demand changes in the shipping industry. A study published Monday, November 29 by Ship it Zero (pdf), an advocacy organization, estimates that shipping by Walmart produces 11.5 million tonnes, equivalent to around 1% of annual maritime transport emissions in 2018, while Amazon produces around 1.5 million tonnes of CO2.

But the acceleration of ships in the midst of a maritime gold rush suggests that despite their stated good intentions, companies are likely to remain profit-driven first, a dynamic that could be held back by better regulation. But according to a study by the Tyndall Center, the current targets set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations agency responsible for overseeing the climate objectives of maritime transport, “would lead to maritime transport emitting more than double. emissions compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Rehmatulla, of University College London, said processes to prevent ships from speeding up need to be in place. “There is no way the ships would have done what they are doing if there had been a real incentive not to waste your CO2 intensity.” Speed, he said, is “a major variable that really needs to be controlled.”

IMO may be moving in that direction. At a meeting this month, he said he would put in place new regulations for boating, including limits on speed and time spent anchored in port. The measures would only take effect in 2023 and will not impact the current surge in emissions from shipping.

Record shipping profits from the chaos of the supply chain could be used to modernize ships with zero-emission freight sails, for example, or to step up the development of hydrogen or ammonia as a fuel. hold. Instead, shipping companies are investing in air freight to move goods faster, at an even higher cost to the environment.