These invisible culprits silently sweep the seas bringing us our shiny new toys, cars, computers and Q tips, as fast as we require with the upmost convenience and at awe-striking global scale.
There are over 100,000 shipping vessels out plying our oceans ensuring you and I receive all our goodies and gadgets in time for Christmas.
What you don't see can't hurt you... or can it? Think about this:
- These fleets are collectively the largest emitter of black carbon, a carcinogen linked to arctic ice melting and to 60,000 premature annual deaths in the US alone. (US EPA)
- 1 vessel alone transporting commercial goods spews as much sulphur oxide (SOX) emissions as 50 million cars.
- 16 vessels emit more SOX emissions than all the world's cars combined. (New Scientist, 11/09).
- If the shipping industry were a country -- they would be the sixth-largest polluter. (Behind US, China, Russia, India and Japan -- in descending order.)
- Over 85% of all cargo worldwide is transported by boat, and pollution from shipping is a substantial contributor to climate change.
- Annual CO2e emissions currently exceed one billion tons and are projected to grow to 18% of all manmade CO2e emissions by 2050 in a "business as usual" scenario.
- Yet existing technology presents an opportunity for up to 75% gains in efficiency, with required investments repaid in just a few years.
Part of the challenge with tackling the emissions in this industry is that the companies and transactions operate on a complex multinational supply and transport web most of which happens 'behind the scenes' and is virtually invisible to the end consumer. (Unless you are one of the approximately 87 million Americans who live near major seaports are breathing some of the nation's dirtiest -- and most dangerous -- air, according to the EPA)
The strategy of many activists has been to pledge to buy less things, or buy things produced locally. Creating this consumer awareness and demand is valuable to promote local economies and materials.
However it is a drop in a bottomless bucket compared to the strategy employed by Branson's Carbon War Room.
(Yes, you will hear a lot about them from me -- as I am a fan and can't help myself from sharing their unique approach with all of you. IMHO, we are hungry for action but short on meta-strategy that can diagnose global 'acupuncture points' that are key places to intervene to release waves of opportunity for change. )
One such point of leverage is in the shipping industry.
At the World Climate Summit here in Cancun this week Sir Richard Branson and his Carbon War Room have launched new online platform at shippingefficiency.org which grades more than 60,000 commercial vessels from A (cleanest) to G (dirtiest) according to their emissions.
There, you (especially if you are a high volume customer such as WalMart or IKEA) can look up any vessel and see its bill of health.
The catalytic Carbon War Room team is betting that this kind of transparency can transform the industry through competition, reducing millions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere in the process.
Carbon War Room Director of Operations Peter Boyd offered up a list of scenarios he imagines this measurement tool will prompt:
- "Imagine if you're a port," he said, "and you give preferential treatment to ships with A's." (resulting in cleaner air for workers and locals)
- "Imagine if you're a buyer at Coke or Nike, wondering, 'Which guy will get my (shipping) business next year?'"
- "Imagine if you were Maersk and you could say, 'Buy my stuff because my ships are best.'"
- "Imagine if you were a bank. What financing for retrofits could you offer to A ships, knowing there is new demand for a cleaner vehicle?"
- "Imagine the press release that says your beloved brand has been getting Gs for six months -- or A's."
Already, shipping giant Maersk Line has signed on. Maersk, which recently became the first shipping line in the world to have its carbon footprint verified, shared that data with the Carbon War Room.
"Now everyone can see clearly how our vessels perform, both our customers and the general public," said Jacob Sterling, head of climate change and environment for the company.
Boyd says it's high time that the industry modernize its operations. Based on its current technology, he claims the industry is 30% less efficient than it should be.
"There is a huge market failure here," Boyd said.
The rating system employs methodology developed by the United Nations' International Maritime Organization (IMO) for the Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) and data from the world's largest ship registry. If the rating system gains ground, we may eventually see large stickers on the sides of all the world's shipping vessels that display their ratings for all to see.
The Carbon War Room maintains that creating climate change solutions unleashes "the economic opportunity of our generation." Its approach is to harness the power of entrepreneurs and creative initiatives to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions by focusing on seven different sectors of the global economy, of which shipping is one. Check it out at carbonwarroom.com.
Follow Christiana Wyly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/christianawyly