Shipping industry must step up to help protect oceans

Last Saturday was World Oceans Day. As is our wont, we humans have dedicated a day to the planet’s largest bodies of water, supposedly a sign of concern and care. However, every day of the year, including on World Oceans Day, we continue to exploit and slowly kill the very oceans that we are meant to protect. The oceans cover 70 percent of Earth’s surface, contain 97 percent of the globe’s entire water resources and are home to tens of millions of lifeforms that are known to humans, as well as perhaps many times more that lie undiscovered in the depths. The importance of oceans, not just for humans but all forms of life, can perhaps never be overstated.

Yet we continue to treat the oceans as little more than infinite garbage dumps. Each year, up to 13 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into the world’s oceans, adding to the 150 million tons that is already present and suffocating all forms of marine life. Oceans also end up absorbing almost a quarter of all our carbon emissions, which stood at 37.1 gigatons last year. In addition, the oceans receive millions of tons of other forms of waste, often untreated and toxic, including oil and grease from the thousands of supertankers and ships that crisscross the globe every day. As a result, oceans are becoming more polluted and more acidic at a rapid rate and, if global emissions continue unabated, then by the end of the century oceans will be 150 percent more acidic than they are now. Acidification damages and kills corals that need calcium carbonate to stay healthy. Besides corals, basic forms of life such as bivalves are also seriously affected. As a result, the entire food chain in the oceans, and eventually on land as well, would be impacted. Even though the need to protect the oceans from any further pollution is urgent, little is currently being done by the governments and industries responsible for the current state of affairs. Indeed, with greater awareness around the world, some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and people living in coastal areas have taken it upon themselves to clean the oceans and have succeeded in clearing tons of garbage from their vicinity. However, these efforts are more than nullified by the amount of fresh garbage reaching the oceans every day. Laudable as such actions may be, this is an issue that cannot be solved by NGOs or individuals. Industries and governments need to step in and take immediate and punitive measures against further pollution of the seas. One of the biggest sources of pollution at sea are cargo ships, which are responsible for more than 90 percent of global trade. The ships use heavy oils, which are extremely high in sulfur, and contribute more than 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, emitting nearly 950 million tons each year. For years, the shipping industry has resisted any moves to curb either its sulfur or carbon emissions and, at this rate, emissions from shipping will increase by up to 250 percent in the next 30 years. Thankfully, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), part of the UN, has mandated that, from Jan. 1, 2020, all ships need to cut the sulfur content of their fuel from the current 3.5 percent to less than 0.5 percent. There has been a mixed reaction from the industry, as well as oil producers. Some oil producers, notably the US, have welcomed the move, not because they care about the environment, but because US crude is lighter and hence lower in sulfur, which gives it a huge competitive advantage over many other producers, notably Russia, Venezuela and Iran. To what extent the IMO’s mandate will be followed or how it plans to police the tens of thousands of ships is another issue.


Shipping companies need to do much more than just curb the sulfur content of their fuel, but they seem to have dropped anchor and refused to budge. Most companies plead that the shipping industry has been reeling since the 2008 financial meltdown, which led to a fall in global trade. They also point to the trade tensions not just between the US and China but also several other countries, which has created a crisis in an industry that has been facing falling demand for more than a decade. Citing this, they have resisted moves to mandate more efficient ship engines or the use of fuel with a lower carbon footprint. There has not been any move toward using other methods of powering the boats — batteries or renewables included However, the IMO has set a target of cutting the greenhouse gas emissions of the shipping industry by half by 2050, instead of letting them grow by 250 percent from the current levels. Some of the bigger players, notably Maersk, have pledged to try to go even further than the IMO’s targets. However, on the ground, or rather the high seas in this case, there is little evidence of the ships becoming cleaner. Powering supertankers or large container ships is not easy and batteries that currently cannot power a car for long are unlikely to be of much use to the captains of such vessels. The industry could try retrofitting ships with batteries that could be powered by renewables, as both the sun and wind are in abundance on the open oceans. But, here again, the industry, especially the heavyweights, have not yet stepped in to look for greener alternatives, nor have they funded any such research. On the other hand, billions of dollars continue to be invested in purchasing new ships that add to the global capacity, rather than replace the existing, high-polluting ones. Until governments step in with harsh measures, this industry is unlikely to be a good self-regulator.

Source: Arab News



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