We read about and hear commentary on our changing environment almost every day, but how is it affecting ocean freight?  While autos, coal powered generating plants, and deforestation are often the primary topics when climate change is debated, ocean freight and  ocean going vessels, are going to be a major factor in how we manage our environment going forward.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s consider three sub-topics related to ocean freight, pollution, and global warming.

Is there and upside to global warming?

As we have all heard, the arctic ice shelf has been disappearing at an alarming rate. While this is bad news for populations that are being affected by rising sea levels, the disappearance of ice in the arctic is opening up transport lanes that could significantly reduce freight costs between Europe and Asia. The Northern Sea Route as it is known, has become a practical alternative for ocean freight between northern Europe and Coastal Asian ports via the Bering Strait.

As of today, this route is open only about 3 months out of the year, but as developments in ice breaker technology along with continued global warming, the route could be traversed year around by the end of the 2020’s.

Alternatives to current ocean freight propulsion systems:

There is no debate – ocean freight shipping contributes significantly to air pollution. The industry recognizes that change is needed and much research and experimentation is going in to alternative propulsion designs for the ocean freighters of the future.

Cleaner fuels, scrubbers similar to the technology used in coal plants, and even wind power are all concepts that have merits (as well as drawbacks) for the ocean freighters of the future.

Of all of the ideas that are on the table, using wind energy to move ocean freight has been drawing the most interest and research money. While it’s not likely we will ever see ocean schooners with large masts full of sails plying the seven seas again, technology, sail design and the use of a hybrid concept that uses wind and clean fuel is a model that can be economically and environmentally successful.

Could more ocean freight traffic actually reduce global warming?

Sometimes, things just aren’t as simple as we would like them to be. In the case of ocean going freighters, they burn a low grade of fuel that emits carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, Sulphur, and other nasty stuff in large quantities. Although it would seem counterintuitive, many scientists that study the topic believe that as a result of all of the Sulphur that ships have pushed into the air over the last century, the light scattering qualities of Sulphur have actually blocked sunlight, thereby lowering the heating effect of the sun. One study done a decade ago estimated that the thermal effect of this Sulphur in the air could account for as much as ¼ of a degree, centigrade, in the current temperature of the earth.

Ironically, reduced Sulphur content of fuels used in the ocean freight industry will go into effect beginning in 2020. While no one would challenge the fact that Sulphur is bad stuff to put into the air we all breath, the unintended consequences of well-intended legislation needs to be considered.