Container Ships Use Super-Dirty Fuel and That Needs to Change

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Container Ships Use Super-Dirty Fuel and That Needs to Change

Many cargo ships still use “bunker fuel” — the sludgy dregs of the petroleum refining process. The noxious blend is dirt-cheap, making it possible to charge next to nothing to ship goods internationally. All of which means our unbridled consumerism hitches a ride on some of the dirtiest vehicles on earth.

The International Maritime Organization, the industry’s main regulator, suggests that carbon emissions from shipping could shoot up as much as 250 percent by 2050 as the world’s population grows and economies expand. At that point, the European Parliament estimates the industry could produce 17 percent of global emissions, up from less than 3 percent today.

But Tristan Smith, a leading shipping researcher at University College London’s Energy Institute, notes companies still have little reason to spend their time and money building a greener cargo fleet. “A very large proportion of the sector is really not interested in doing anything until the very last minute that the regulation hits,” he says.

Jorge Quijano, administrator of the Panama Canal Authority, tells the crowd the canal is doing its part to “bring about a sense of responsibility with our planet.” In January, he explains, it launched a program to reward shippers that meet high energy-efficiency standards or use low-sulfur and lower-carbon fuels, including cleaner-burning liquefied natural gas. Companies that do so can boost their standing in the canal’s ranking system for determining who gets priority access to the waterway.

The industry finds initiatives like these, which encourage upgrades but not drastic overhauls, generally palatable—they promote good behavior without overtly punishing status quo ships.

By 2050, the group says, nearly all operating cargo ships must generate zero emissions in order to fall in line with the Paris agreement goal of keeping global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels. Proponents say it can happen if the industry doesn’t drag its feet. “We’re not saying you have to decarbonize right now,” says Smith of University College London. “You just have to start the process of figuring it out.”

Over the next two weeks in Germany, UN negotiators and thousands of other participants will gather to discuss not only promising ship technologies but also strategies to convince an old-fashioned industry to embrace new ideas.

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