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The secret shipping industry uncovered



The shipping industry transports 90% of the goods we use and consume – so why do we know so little about it?

This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Transport 2014. 

The shipping industry transports around 90% of all imports to the west. It has quadrupled in size since 1970, with around 100,000 vessels now working on the seas globally. Maersk – just one shipping company, but one of the largest – has annual revenues that match technology giant Microsoft, bringing in around $60.2 billion (£36.7 billion). Despite this, the industry is often invisible.

In 2009, Sir Jonathon Band, the First Sea Lord, accused politicians of “sea blindness”. Although his comments were chiefly in response to the government’s cuts to the defence budget, the sentiment can also be applied to the industrialised west – according to the journalist and author Rose George. In a December 2013 TED talk, George said, “Perhaps the general public thinks of shipping as an old-fashioned industry, something brought by sailboat with Moby Dicks and Jack Sparrows. But shipping isn’t that. Shipping is as crucial to us as it has ever been.”

After becoming intrigued by how the industry underpins western consumer civilisation, she decided to join a 21-strong crew on a journey from the UK to Singapore. Whilst aboard, George integrated with the ship’s crew, finding out about some of the key issues they face every day. Despite the grave threats posed to the shipping industry from piracy, many workers simply get on with the job at hand, providing a vital link to the economy – and ensuring that goods get from factory to shop floor.

She was told that the black clouds of smoke bellowing from the ship’s chimneys were due to bunker fuel – the dregs of the product from refined fuel. George added, “Shipping has very tight margins. They want cheap fuel so they use something called bunker fuel… the dregs of the refinery, or just one step up from asphalt.”

Compared to the aviation industry, ships emit around a thousandth of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, and around a tenth of that from trucking. However, to put that into context, there is so much shipping going on in the modern world that it contributes to 3-4% of the planet’s total emissions.

The Carbon War Room, co-founded by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, says that shipping is responsible for more than a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every single year. The 15 largest vessels alone account for as much nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide as the world’s 760 million car (though the concentration of these gases in car fuel is, admittedly, much lower than in ship fuel).

Despite being one of the biggest polluters (if the shipping industry were a country, it would rank number six for pollution), the industry began to change its attitude to fuel consumption in 2007, but this was not something that was done with climate change in mind.

Amid rocketing fuel prices, shipping firms knew that in order to keep margins at their highest, they needed to use less fuel. As a result, many adopted the practice of ‘slow steaming’, where they cruise at speeds below their maximum. This, of course, reduced emissions, but initiatives have since been launched in order to change the conversation around fuel.

Speaking to Blue & Green Tomorrow, George says, “I think that initially the compelling factor was cost: fuel is expensive, so if you can build more efficient engines or propellers then that will be accepted by shipbuilders and owners. I think the dialogue has changed now, and there is, at least publicly, acceptance that shipping needs to address its emissions.”

Maersk has invested around $3.8 billion (£2.3 billion) in commissioning the world’s most energy efficient ships, the Triple-E Class series. It completed six vessels throughout 2013, with a further five under construction and to be launched this year, and another 10 in the pipeline. But the main issue, according to George, is the remaining 100,000 ships out there still burning bunker fuel with inefficient engines.

The Carbon War Room estimates that by retrofitting old and inefficient ships with new technologies, such as harnessing wind power, energy recovery, hull optimisation, air lubrication and propeller enhancements, the industry can save around $70 billion (£42 billion) every year and slash carbon dioxide emissions by around 30%. The problem with such initiatives is that ship owners don’t have to fork out a single penny extra for the emissions they pollute – because ultimately, the total bill is footed by society and the planet. Only by engaging everyone in this debate, from consumers to retailers; shipping giants to policymakers, can we align the industry’s apparent operational invisibility with an invisible carbon footprint.

Photo: lotsemann via Flickr

Further reading:

Sustainable Shipping Initiative: a maritime sea change

The road to nowhere: a call to arms for sustainable transport

Sustainable transport: why it matters

The return of the airship: under the bonnet of the world’s longest aircraft

The Guide to Sustainable Transport 2014


New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable




sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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