Shipping’s Growing Carbon Gap

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On the face of it, Shipping is the most efficient of freight transport modes. Intermodal shipping containers kick-started rapid growth in trade globalisation 60 years ago, and container ships, tankers and bulk carriers have been getting bigger ever since. Carrying more freight with less fuel on a tonne-mile basis, shipping has the highest energy productivity of all transport modes.

Yet looks can be deceiving. While international shipping contributes 2.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, business-as-usual could see this explode to a whopping 18% by 2050. As trade growth increases demand, today’s fleet burns the dirtiest transport fuels, and a new report shows the market doesn’t reward ship owners who invest in the latest fuel- and carbon-efficient technologies.

When you consider the scale of the sector’s emission reductions that need to start now to contribute to the COP 21 Paris Agreement target of 1.5°C to 2°C global warming, there’s clearly an enormous decarbonisation gap that threatens to strand shipping assets in a nightmare of devaluations if potential regulatory policies come into play. Current freight flow stoppages due to Hanjin Shipping’s bankruptcy show the disruption shipping company failures can cause.

Markets don’t reward efficiency

The UCL Energy Institute report paints a sad 10-year picture of free-market myopia that finds the latest fuel efficient ships have no better market performance in terms of revenue or usage than vessels with decades-old technologies.

So why wouldn’t cheaper-to-run ships be used more than old ones? Well, today’s record-high shipping capacity drives a low freight rate market, so owners of highly efficient ships must match reduced market rates while passing on fuel savings to charterers, who get the win-win all to themselves.

OK, with fuel prices low the past few years I can understand fuel efficiency has less profile now, but back when capacity was less, charter rates higher and fuel through the roof the report shows it still didn’t seem to get much consideration from charterers. And operating speeds were found to be slower for the more efficient ships, when I would’ve thought the opposite. If fuel cost is barely being considered, maybe its significance in vessel operating cost structures isn’t as big as you’d think, especially in the charterers’ or cargo-owners’ total end-to-end cargo delivery costs.

Market inaction breeds future risks

Shipping customers doom themselves to higher costs over the long term by not incentivising efficient newbuilds and retrofits now.

Current regulation such as the Energy Efficiency Design Index will take forever to have much effect, so if the International Maritime Organisation can’t show improvement in the industry then a UN/State/regional-level carbon price may be forced upon it.

The RightShip GHG Emissions Rating system aims to fix information barriers but the information’s importance needs to influence charterers so they demand GHG ratings or validated fuel efficiency numbers from owners before contracting. Charterers and brokers need to understand the value/net benefit in whole-of-contract-life cost terms, and clearly now only Cargill, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and others who use the RightShip ratings system do.

But do these customers actually pay a premium for the good GHG Rating ships they’re using? Their market power allows them to screw rates down as well as anybody. Given GHG Rating users handle 20% of world trade, the report shows no benefit is flowing through to ship owners in better rates or utilisation, leaving little incentive for new fuel efficiency investments or substandard vessels to leave the market.

Who will lead change?

Community expectations to close the decarbonisation gap will come to bear on shipping from governments, investors and from within.

While further regulation may be justified, a mandatory efficiency standard will be difficult to apply to old vessels. Ultimately it might take a carbon price passed directly to charterers supported by voluntary Energy Efficiency Operational Indicator and Existing Vessel Design Index measures with in-service validation and benchmarking to force and help charterers change their decision-making.

Investors increasingly vote with their wallets to make boards respond to green preferences that are rationally based on financial sustainability and managing risks in a zero carbon future.

Owners of efficient ships must better promote their value proposition that reduces costs, positions for green demand and lowers regulatory risk for customers and the industry. Cargo owners, charterers, brokers, ports, banks, industry associations, suppliers and employees can all influence fuel efficiency improvements in the shipping fleet.

The oversupply of ships that helped take down industry giant Hanjin Shipping can only be fixed by scrapping old inefficient vessels, and the shipping market must take the lead now for its long term benefit.

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