Although the global shipping industry plays a central role in greasing the wheels of international trade, we can’t afford to ignore the environmental impact it has. In recent years, the pressing need to tackle climate change in a decisive manner has pressed environmental issues to the forefront of global political debate. While the attempts to hammer out a global consensus between international political and business elites has proven to be a truly protracted and painful one, we can’t afford to allow this to deter us from the task – after all, the fate of humanity really does depend on it. So just how much of an impact does the global shipping industry have on the environment?
According to a survey carried out by the International Maritime Organisation – the UN body established to regulate the global shipping industry – in 2007, shipping-related carbon emissions were some 50 per cent higher than originally estimated. The report warned that maritime emissions were on track to soar by 75 per cent by 2020, putting this down to the rapid growth in the international shipping fleet. Of course, it’s worth remembering that the global economic downturn which struck in 2008 and continues to cast a long shadow over international commerce today subsequently had a major impact on shipping, forcing many lines to reduce fleets.
However, this doesn’t mean that there’s no need to tackle the problem of shipping-related pollution. After all, if it hadn’t been for the credit crunch and subsequent recession, it’s hard to guess what the situation would be like today. What is interesting is that the economic malaise has forced the global shipping industry to make changes which do have some benefit to the environment – even if the sector’s hand has effectively been forced by economic uncertainty and weakened consumer demand in many of the world’s most developed economies.
In 2010, the Guardian reported that the world’s largest cargo ships were travelling at lower speeds than clippers such as the Cutty Sark had done some 130 years earlier. It observed that travel times between the US and China were comparable to the ‘golden age of sail’ in the 19th century, with a combination of economic stagnation and increasing awareness of the threat posed by climate change prompting a reduction in speeds from 25 knots to 20 knots in 2008. However, in the years after that, many lines opted to reduce speeds even further to 12 knots – by contrast, American clippers of the 1850s averaged between 14 and 17 knots, with the fastest ships reaching 22 knots.
Of course, it’s important to remember that the global shipping industry can go further still to reduce carbon emissions. There is a difficult trade-off facing firms – their immediate duty is to their shareholders, but the interests of the planet as a whole cannot be ignored for any longer. It’s also worth remembering that other industries have to do their bit as well. For example, it’s no good the shipping industry reducing emissions if it simply gets undercut by the aviation industry. Nevertheless, in partnership with state actors, scientific experts and other industries, there is at least some reason to be optimistic that further progress will be made in the years ahead.