It’s one of the busiest container shipping routes in the world – a stream of ships filled with furniture, automobiles, clothing and other goods, crossing the Pacific between Los Angeles and Shanghai.
If the plans are successful, this corridor will become a showcase for reducing global warming carbon emissions from the shipping industry, which produces nearly 3% of the global total. It’s less than for cars, trucks, rail or aviation, but it’s still a lot — and it’s growing.
The International Maritime Organization, which regulates commercial shipping, wants to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century and may seek to cut further this year. “Shipping must embrace decarbonization,” IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said in February.
Achieving agency goals will require significant ship and infrastructure modifications. These are inspiring plans for “green maritime corridors” along major routes where new technologies and methods could be accelerated and scaled.
More than 20 such partnerships have been proposed. They’re largely on paper now, but should take shape in the years to come. The objective: to unite marine fuel producers, ship owners and operators, shipowners and ports in a common effort.
Los Angeles and Shanghai formed their partnership last year.
“The vision is that a container will 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 a unit of zero-emission cargo handling equipment, and cross the Pacific Ocean on a zero-carbon ship. Once it arrives in Los Angeles, the reverse is happening,” with carbon-free handling and distribution.
Los Angeles struck a second deal in April with Long Beach and Singapore. Others in the works include the Great Lakes-St. St. Lawrence River ; a Chilean network; and numerous corridors in Asia, North America and Europe.
C40 Cities, a global coalition of mayors for climate action, advocates green corridors as “tools that can turn ambition into action, bringing together the entire transport value chain”, said Alisa Kreynes, director assistant.
But Kreynes cautioned: “I can’t help but wonder how much of this is public relations and how much of this is going to become practice. This is going to require a cultural shift in thinking about how we get things from point A to point B.”
New approaches developed in green corridors could bring quick results, said John Bradshaw, technical director for environment and safety at the World Shipping Council. “I am convinced that the industry will produce no emissions by 2050.”
From tea to tennis shoes, the stuff in your pantry and closets has likely spent time on a ship.
About 90% of traded goods move on water, some in behemoths longer than four football fields, each containing thousands of containers with consumer products. About 58,000 merchant ships ply the seas.
Their emissions are less noticeable than those from land-based carriers such as trucks, although the noxious fumes from ships are causing complaints in port communities.
Maritime trade volumes are expected to triple by 2050, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Studies predict that industry’s share of greenhouse gas emissions could reach 15%.
Yet the 2015 Paris climate accord exempts shipping, in part because ships do business around the world, while the deal covers national targets by country.
“Nobody wants to take responsibility,” said Allyson Browne of Pacific Environment, an advocacy group. “A ship may be under the Chinese flag, but who owns the emissions of that ship when it transports goods to the United States?”
The IMO has responded to mounting pressure with a 2018 plan for a 50% cut in emissions by mid-century from 2008 levels. An update due in July could set more ambitious targets favored by the United States, Europe and small island nations. Opponents are Brazil, China and India.
The Biden administration wants a zero emissions goal, a State Department official told The Associated Press.
But less than half of major shipping companies have committed to meeting international carbon targets. And there is no consensus on how to accomplish them.
The proposals range from slowing down ships to charging for their emissions, as the European Union did last year.
“Global shipping is difficult to decarbonize…because of the energy required to travel long distances with heavy cargo,” said Lee Kindberg, environmental and sustainability manager for Maersk North America, which is part of of AP Moller-Maersk, which has more than 700 ships. “It’s overkill but we consider it doable.”
Mechanical sails. Batteries. Low or zero carbon liquid fuels.
They are among methods of propulsion touted as substitutes for the “bunker fuel” that powers most commercial ships – thick residues from petroleum refining. It spews greenhouse gases and pollutants that endanger human health: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, soot.
Finding alternatives will be a priority for maritime green corridors.
For now, liquefied natural gas is the most common choice. Worldwide, it is used by 923 of the 1,349 commercial vessels not powered by conventional fuels, according to a study carried out last year by DNV, a maritime accreditation company based in Norway. Ships equipped with batteries or hybrid systems are placed far behind.
Many environmentalists oppose LNG because it emits methane, another potent greenhouse gas. Advocates say it’s the fastest, most cost-effective bunker fuel substitute.
Of 1,046 alternative energy vessels on order, 534 are LNG-powered while 417 are battery hybrids, DNV reported. Another 35 will use methanol, which analysts see as a cleaner and promising alternative.
Moller-Maersk plans to launch 12 freighters next year that will use “green methanol” produced from renewable sources such as vegetable waste. Biodiesel from used cooking oil powers some of its ships.
The company is collaborating on 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,” Kindberg said.
Norsepower offers a new twist on an old technology: wind.
The Finnish company has developed “rotor sails” – composite cylinders about 30 meters high that are installed on the decks of ships and rotate in the breeze. Differences in air pressure on opposite sides of whirring devices help push a ship forward.
An independent analysis found that rotor sails fitted to a Maersk tanker in 2018 produced 8.2% fuel savings in one 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 ordered them, Riski said.
“Mechanical sails have a critical role in decarbonizing shipping,” he said. “They can’t do it alone, but they can make a big contribution.”
Fleetzero argues that electric ships are best suited to wean the industry off carbon. The company was founded two years ago in Alabama to build freighters with rechargeable batteries.
CEO Steven Henderson says he envisions smaller, more nimble ship fleets than huge container ships. They would stop at ports that have freshly charged batteries to swap them out for weak ones. Fleetzero’s prototype ship is expected to begin delivering cargo later this year.
WHO GOES FIRST?
Before building or purchasing low-emission vessels, companies want to ensure that clean fuels will be available and affordable.
The companies producing the fuels, meanwhile, want enough ships using them to ensure strong markets.
And both need port infrastructure that can accommodate next-generation ships, such as electrical hookups and clean fuel delivery mechanisms.
But ports are waiting for demand to justify such costly upgrades. Upgrading shore-based cargo-handling equipment and trucks to zero-emission models will cost the Port of Los Angeles $20 billion, officials say.
“Once you put a (green) corridor on the map,” said Jason Anderson, senior program director at the nonprofit ClimateWorks Foundation, “at least they’re headed in the same direction.”
Success will require government regulation and corridor funding, as well as support from shipping industry customers, 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 pledges to use only zero-emission shipping companies by 2040. Among the 19 signatories are Amazon, Michelin and Target.
“When large corporate buyers come together and say we need this to happen, the rest of the chain has the confidence to make the necessary investments,” said Ingrid Irigoyen, deputy director of the nonprofit Aspen Institute, who helped form the band.
Follow John Flesher on Twitter: @JohnFlesher
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