Greenhouse gases from shipping are set to rise – but it’s still better than flying goods out


hipping, the servant of global trade, has a massive environmental footprint. Typically 90\% of what we consume in the UK has been imported; most is shipped. We’re not just talking consumer goods – TVs, iPhones, trainers – but also dry bulk goods, from grain to timber and coal for power stations. The industry is responsible for 1bn tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year (similar to the emissions of Germany).

Still, shipping is better than air freight. A Defra study concludes that 2 tonnes of freight carried for 5,000km by a small container ship creates 150kg of CO2e (a measure of relative global warming potential) compared to 6,605kg of CO2e if the freight is carried by plane for the same distance. A clear difference.

It is unlikely that any importer – and therefore any consumer – can guarantee a “small” ship (the vogue is for huge cargo ships, which use more fuel). Nor can we confirm the route: some shipping lines avoid emission-control areas established in an effort to combat sulphur emissions.

There are greener ships. In 2009, a solar-powered container ship made its maiden voyage. But given the enormous capital investment tied up in a ship – and that there’s a five-year lead time on cleaner, greener versions – owners are loathe to scrap old ships.

Still, between 2007 and 2012 we saw a dip in emissions: after the recession containers slowed down to save on fuel. Pre-economic crash a cargo ship typically travelled at 24 knots, and post crash 16 knots. But now, with economic recovery, it’s full steam ahead. Greenhouse gas emissions from shipping might rise by 250\% by 2050.

There’s a massive social justice story emerging here, too. The 2006 Maritime Labour Convention established universal rights for seafarers, but they remain among the most vulnerable group of workers. There’s not much access to lawyers and doctors at sea and the practice of registering ships under flag states with lower human-rights standards persists.

For something so important to us (for a surprisingly thrilling rundown of containers, read The Box by Marc Levinson), it’s unbelievable that these ships are such shadowy facilitators of our consumerist lives. Imported goods, therefore, have a gap in their supply chain. We all need to engage not just with who produces our goods (the mantra of fairly traded goods) but also who brought them to us.
Source: The Guardian

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