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The shipping industry likes to portray itself as the most environmentally sound mode of transport.
That supposed green credential has helped the industry escape any caps on greenhouse gases since it contributes less than 3 percent to overall global emissions. But, by mid-century, that number is expected to jump as much as 250 percent as more and more ships take to the world's oceans.
With that in mind, some in the shipping industry are starting to take a hard look at how their vessels are designed and powered — none more so than Norway, which depends heavily on boats to transport goods across its fjords.
The government recently teamed up with Oslo-based DNV GL on an ambitious plan to develop the world's first environmentally friendly fleet of coastal vessels. Rather than using diesel fuel, the ships would either be powered entirely by electric — using the same technology as an electric car but with a battery the size of a storage container — or a combination of battery power and liquid natural gas (LNG), or some other cleaner-burning fuel.
"Norway can be a showcase in the world and platform for testing out environment technology and also for export of green technology and environmental friendly transport services," said Narve Mjøs, DNV GL's program director for the Green Coastal Shipping Programme.
"The program is about emissions reductions. It is about green jobs," he said. "We believe the Norwegian maritime industry can be an important green growth industry."
Mjøs said the project's first ships are years away, with the industry just now beginning five feasibility studies on a range of plug-in, hybrid ships and one that examines the prospects of turning Risavika Harbour in Norway into an all-electric port.
In the push to go green, much of the attention lately has been on shifting to cleaner burning natural gas. There are now 70 LNG ships in operation and 80 under construction, Mjøs said.
"We suggest that in 2022 there will be more than 1,000 LNG ships in the world," Mjøs said, adding that LNG power would cut CO2 emissions by 20 percent for each ship as well as reduce air pollution from smokestacks.
The industry, however, has been slow to embrace battery-powered ships, possibly over concerns about reliability and costs.
So far, of the few in operation, most are plying short distances — including the first electrically powered ferry in Norway, which Ampere launched this year. It carries 120 cars and 360 passengers and needs 10 minutes of charging for each 20-minute trip.
Despite such low activity, Mjøs and others said the future is bright for ships like electric ferries, especially in Norway. Siemens, whose technology was behind the Ampere ferry, projects there could be as many as 50 routes in Norway alone that could be covered by electric ferries.
"There will be more that are electric because the business case is extremely good here in Norway," Mjøs said. "The electricity is cheap and, in general, diesel is expensive."
Either way, the industry may not have much of a choice but to go green. After largely being overlooked in the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ship owners find themselves a growing target of environmentalists in the run-up to the United Nations climate talks that begin in Paris next week.
The draft agreement for Paris released in October included language calling on parties to "pursue limitation or reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation and marine bunker fuels" and for "concrete measures," albeit with not much detail on what those might be.
Environmentalists warn that improved efficiencies from ships won't be enough to lower emissions because so many new ships are expected to be brought on line in the coming years.
"We urgently, urgently need a reduction target for shipping emissions," said Sotiris Raptis, a policy officer with Transport & Environment, a Europe-based group that promotes sustainable transport. "Without the targets, nobody has a real incentive in innovation, R&D, new technologies. This is the main problem."
Several proposals aimed at regulating carbon emissions have been put forward with regard to shipping including a fuel tax, an emissions trading program, and a requirement that the industry pay $25 for every ton of carbon dioxide it emits — to help pay for poor countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change, according to the International Transport Forum.
So far, the industry has shown little appetite for any of these measures – tabling any discussions in May on emissions targets. It also has come out against shipping emissions being included in the Paris talks.
"In the process leading up to the Paris meeting, world leaders might be tempted to consider specific measures aimed at reducing shipping's overall contribution of CO2 emissions, such as an overall cap," Koji Sekimizu, secretary general of the International Maritime Organization, said in a statement in September. "Such measures would artificially limit the ability of shipping to meet the demand created by the world economy, or would unbalance the level playing field that the shipping industry needs for efficient operation, and therefore must be avoided."
Rather than targets, the IMO and the industry have embraced measures that would require new ships to be more efficient and reduce sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide missions from marine engines.
As a result, the industry says emissions from ships today are 20 percent lower than in 2005. Those emissions will keep falling in the years ahead, it claims, as the industry embraces biofuels and other efficiency measures like wind power and slower speeds.
"As its contribution to the United Nations 2 degree Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) climate change goal, shipping is committed to reducing CO2 per ton-km by at least 50 percent before 2050, and is well on course for carbon-neutral growth," said Simon Bennett, the director policy & external relations for the International Chamber of Shipping. "Over the next decade, the shipping industry will be investing over $500 billion to comply with new global IMO regulations concerning the use of low sulphur fuels to reduce air pollution and the installation of sophisticated ballast water treatment systems to prevent damage to local ecosystems by invasive marine organisms unwittingly carried in ships' ballast water."
DNV GL's Mjøs doesn't have a problem with targets, suggesting that his company would rather lead on the environmental front and reap the benefits than have to play catch up with whatever measures eventually are enacted.
"As we say in Norway, the polluters should pay," he said. "So if you are driving or a ship that is polluting the environment, you should pay for it. If you have something that is very environmentally friendly, then you should have benefits."
The Norwegian government's Lars Andreas Lunde, the state secretary for the country's Ministry of Climate and Environment, said his government also put in place its own targets that "have been important for green innovation in shipping." But Lunde said the industry as a whole will need international regulations before it becomes more environmentaly friendly.
"There will be new requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as increased maturity of new low emission solutions. In addition, there will be more forerunners paving the way for the larger shipping community," he said. "When the industry as a whole realizes that the future is low emissions, regarding requirements and regarding a sustainable future of their company, the industry as whole will speed up their green investment."
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