Will the Global Shipping Industry Go Green?

By Thomas Armbruster:

The auto industry, energy sector, and state, local and federal governments are all working to reduce emissions, both in response to the Paris climate accords and to meet consumer expectations, but one important transportation sector is just now asking itself whether they can and should do more.  Shipping.  Shipping accounts for about 2 percent of the world’s greenhouse emissions, but until now, no one has seriously talked about revamping the industry with cleaner fuels.  We all know our cars are heading towards a future when they run on electric batteries or hydrogen cells, or solar, or biomass power.  But the shipping industry has not started such a trend and pivoting now is like the proverbial turn by an aircraft carrier.  It takes a long time.

And this is not the best of times for shipping.  There is a glut of ships, cargo prices are down and margins are thin.  Long term our globalized economy means shipping is a good investment, and like any investment, it makes sense to take care of the long term, not just the next quarter.

The move towards greater efficiency came from an unlikely source, the Marshall Islands.  Former Marshall Islands Tony deBrum has long been a climate crusader.  It’s no wonder.  With the Marshall Islands only 6 feet above sea level, any sea level rise presents a grave national threat to the country.  But the Marshall Islands is also one of the top ship flagging countries, right up there with Panama and Liberia.  So, this was not a politician with nothing to lose tilting at windmills.  In fact, the former Foreign Minister lost his Senate seat in the Marshall Islands, but his call to reform the shipping industry has been taken up by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the controversy is alive and well, with the Solomon Islands Ambassador to the IMO, Moses Kouni Mose, taking up the call.

Even though the contribution to global emissions is relatively small, the IMO’s decision ultimately will say a lot about the ability of large international bodies to take on the commitments to the Paris agreement and make a contribution.  Global standards and a global commitment will ultimately determine whether the agreement in Paris is achievable.

The IMO may want to watch carefully the next moves of the U.S. Navy.  Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is pushing the “Great Green Fleet,” as he embraces new, cleaner technologies to power the world’s most powerful fleet afloat.  The difference is the U.S. Navy’s fortunes don’t crest and fall with every economic wave.  The Navy can count on good support from Congress and the American people and the IMO may have to wait for the next incoming tide for shipping before going all in on new, cleaner technologies.  When they do, maybe they will name a ship after Tony deBrum.

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.

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