Travelling to Japan by sea

Ewan Kinsgton on the ferry
There is still a lot of uncertainty around the carbon emissions of a ferry journey
Ewan continues his journey by ferry from China to Japan but is still unsure if he's taken the most eco-friendly option

I've made it from the middle of England to the middle of China without getting in one of those flying metal things. But how could I just trundle through China, closer than I've ever been to the home of another of the world's major civilisations? 

How could I stick to my land route with those fascinating islands lying tantalisingly close, across the East China Sea? I've told you I'd virtually sworn off  air travel but Japan was just too tempting.

So I did it.

I took... a ferry to Japan, stayed two weeks, and came back on the boat.

Seriously, the uncertainty about CO2 emissions from ferries and the physical distance of the trip meant it was a hard decision to make. In the end I took the ferry rather than a plane largely out of principle – to demonstrate that there's a market for slow travel, and because I believe that  the journey can always be as rich and wonderful as the destination. 

In that spirit, I bring you the highlights of the voyage!

The crossing

Crossing the Inland Sea: Beautiful. On the map, Japan looks like four major islands, in reality, it is a genuine archipelago. So many beautiful, forested islands that slip into the mist like silent giants.

  • Wildlife. The Inland Sea was mainly populated by giant jellyfish and floating rubbish, but on the open ocean we were blessed with the sight of flying fish - their iridiscent forms zipping out of the waves then gliding for tens of metres in the breeze.


  • Camaraderie. Two days at sea sharing a 'Japanese style' cabin meant there was time to make genuine connections with a bunch of lovely folk, both foreigners and East Asians.


  • Entertainment. Where my Latvian ferry had three bars, this one had three very East Asian alternatives. The 'gymnasium' contained a ping pong table, the bar and a decent karaoke system. No prizes for guessing guesses what the 'Mah-Jongg Room' contained.


  • Adventure. There was a lot, from trying to find the bunker-like Shanghai JIFCO terminal, to cruising Shanghai's heavy industry Huang Pu river to the giant swells on the East China sea out of sight of land.  This trip, like the Trans-Siberian, was long, but never got boring.

Oh yeah, Japan was astounding too!
CO2 Emissions –  Shanghai  - Osaka/ Kobe  - Shanghai

It's far from clear how booking a berth on a passenger ferry affects the size of my personal carbon footprint. On the one hand, it takes literally tonnes of diesel to push these big beasts, but on the other, their stock-in-trade is usually transporting cargo in the form of trucks, private cars, or in the case of the Xin Jian Zhen, 200 containers. 

Us passengers are just an add-on, both in terms of weight and the income we provide. The question is really, how much extra CO2 is produced when a cargo ship like this starts to take passengers. To reflect this, I have used my own calculations (below) , which gave a figure of 76g per passenger km.

Ferry: Shanghai – Osaka.         1500Km x 76g (?) ppkm            114 kg  (?)
Ferry: Kobe – Shanghai            1500km x 76g (?) ppkm         114kg (?)
Total:    3000 km                                 228 kg (?)

Equivalent emissions if I had flown direct 2724 km + 9 per cent routing addition  x 98g ppkm (short haul) x 2.5 (?)(RFI)                 =  727 kg (?)
Note: I developed my own ppkm figure for the specific ferry I took. Defra has a figure of 115g ppkm, but this is for passenger ferries that carry road vehicles. They also allocate CO2 emissions to passengers by counting the weight of passengers and cars against the total cargo of the ferries.

This doesn't work for me. It's too high because I don't (and won't!) have a car, it's too low because I'm different from cargo -  I need extra infrastructure (such as karaoke machines) to keep me safe and happy.

So my figure came from these figures:

Total fuel used by ship one way =  116 tonnes
Multiplier for weight of diesel to CO2  = 2.62
Total distance  = 1500 km
116, 000 x 2.8 /1500  = Total CO2 per km = 203 kg

And these estimates:
Percent of ship's total volume given to passenger areas  15 per cent
Density of passenger areas compared to to cargo areas   25 per cent
Average passenger number = 100

203kg x  0.15 x 0.25 / 100 =  76 g

Which, in the end, seems much better than the figure for an airplane berth, but with a great deal of uncertainty for both forms of transport. Boat was far more fun though, that's for sure.

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