Ships told to go slow to cut carbon emissions

Container ship

Reducing shipping speeds could decrease GHG emissions by 30 per cent

'Slow-steaming' could reduce shipping emissions by 30 per cent, says a report submitted to the UN, but toxic lubricants remain a serious problem

The shipping industry is being told to reduce vessel speeds to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The current oversupply of ships allows for captains to sail slower and reduce emissions by a third, according to a report presented to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) yesterday.

So far, research into lowering the environmental impact of shipping has focused on developing more fuel-efficient vessels, but environmentalists argue that simply going slower could reduce emissions by more than 30 per cent.

The shipping industry accounts for more than three per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and its share is expected to rise over the coming decades.

Critics of ‘slow-steaming’ had argued that more ships would be needed to transport the same amount of cargo if speed restrictions were adopted. 

But given that an estimated 12 per cent of container ships are currently lying idle, the report says shipping companies would not need to increase fleet sizes in order to go slower.

Golden opportunity

‘In short, this study shows that the current overcapacity in the fleet presents the global shipping industry with a golden opportunity to make substantial reductions in GHG emissions in the short term,’ said John Maggs, Policy Advisor with Seas At Risk.

‘This is particularly important given the urgent need to peak emissions in the next few years if global warming is to be kept well below 2 degrees and catastrophic consequences avoided,’ he added.

Some shipping companies have already adopted slow-steaming to lower operating costs and absorb surplus capacity. Phillip Damas of Drewry Shipping Consultants said that more than half of the container ships on the east/west trade routes now operate with slow-steaming, compared to zero in early 2008.

Unpopular measure

But whilst some importers can tolerate the extra two or three days transit time, forcing companies to slow-steam would be unpopular in the shipping industry, said Damas. 

‘Importers of time-sensitive products, like fashion textiles, need speed of delivery,’ he said.

‘If slow-steaming is universally applied by all providers and forced on time-sensitive importers then the practice would actually result in additional costs and the loss of ‘supply chain agility,’ he added.

Lubricant pollution

In another session at the Marine Environment Protection Committee today, Friends of the Earth (FOE) and WWF called on the IMO to address the issue of ship lubricant pollution.

They estimate that 244,000 tonnes of toxic oil based lubricants are released into the sea each year.

‘Lubricant leakage doesn’t attract the attention of oil spillages, but the quantities are likely to be higher,’ said Simon Walmsley of WWF. 
‘It’s the equivalent to approximately one and a half times the amount of oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez disaster every year,’ he added.

Useful links
Full IMO report 'Seas at Risk'

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