Opinion: 4 ways shipping can help meet the SDGs

By Tristan Smith 18 May 2017

A view of the Port of Rades in Tunisia. Photo by: Dana Smillie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Trade is central to global and national economies, and ships and ports are the workhorses of trade.

Take Africa: A healthy global shipping system is fundamental for the continent’s imports and exports of food, energy and basic raw materials. Much of Africa’s $500 billion of export revenue is only possible because it travelled at low cost, by sea, to consumers in overseas markets. Shipping is crucial to enabling African competitiveness, export-led economic development and allowing the continent to meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

But there are two sides to the coin. Ships burn vast amounts of fossil fuels, and release 2 to 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions on an annual basis.

Like all sectors, shipping needs to decarbonize, and move to lower and ultimately zero carbon fuels as part of a global effort to mitigate the potentially dangerous impacts of climate change. Also, like all sectors, there is an opportunity to do this whilst also meeting the SDGs ambitions.

Here are four ways the industry can help achieve the United Nations 2030 targets.

1. Help deliver an ambitious maritime climate plan in 2018 (SDG 13)

The sector accounts for around 2 to 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to the International Maritime Organisation, greenhouse gas emissions from shipping are expected to increase by 50 to 250 percent by 2050. U.N. discussions are ongoing to define an initial climate strategy in 2018, and a revised strategy in 2023.

Taking a lead from the Paris Agreement, many in the industry have already started to form policy, on the assumption that shipping will approximately need to halve emissions by 2050.

In the context of growing demand for shipping due to continued global — and African — population and economic growth, this implies a 60 to 90 percent reduction in CO2 emitted for every ton of goods shipped, over the next three decades.

2. Build the ‘right’ shipping infrastructure (SDG 9)

The “right” infrastructure can solve many problems simultaneously.

It can enable electrification of ships as they approach or are at berth in port, can reduce energy demand, enable access to low-cost energy sources, reduce negative health impacts related to fossil fuel combustion, and reduce GHG emissions.

The careful design of the same port could ensure its resilience against climate change impacts such as extreme weather events and sea level rise.

Smart design can boost port efficiency, enable access by larger ships — all reducing transport costs, reducing cost of living and increasing opportunities for export-led economic growth.

As Antwerp and Rotterdam are already demonstrating, ports often act as hubs for land-side transport and energy storage, becoming the cornerstone of transport innovation and wider transport energy decarbonisation initiatives.

Finance for large infrastructure projects — for example the Nigerian government is investing $1.5 billion in the Lekki Port development off Lagos — can often be obtained or made cheaper by associating to GHG reduction efforts, such as climate finance, or SDGs.

Increasingly, private as well as public finance is looking at sustainability and GHG criteria.

3. Get radical on cleaner shipping fuels (SDG 7)

The opportunity to “leapfrog” is often applied to Africa’s development — missing out a costly and unnecessary step in the evolution of infrastructure and systems.

The same concept can be applied for Africa’s shipping — considering how shipping’s technology and fuels are likely to change over coming decades now, will help to ensure that the right systems are in place to ensure an efficient and well-managed transition.

This is crucial for ensuring lower costs over the longer term and avoiding expensive stranded assets or technology lock-in.

A good example here is that of liquid natural gas, when used as a marine fuel and alternative to conventional oil-derived fossil fuels. LNG has attracted some western government investment to support its use.

But as it is still a fossil fuel, LNG will very shortly need to be replaced with non-fossil alternatives, leaving these LNG investments as stranded assets.

Far better to invest now in infrastructure and machinery that will be economically and physically resilient, with a proper plan in line with the multi-decadal technology and fuels transition that shipping can expect.

4. Developing countries must get involved in the sector

At the IMO’s last meeting that discussed the sector’s GHG emissions in October 2016, only 15 of the 43 African countries that are members of the IMO were present. Only seven of those 15 countries actually spoke in the debate on GHG.* This is despite the implications both to the direct risks of dangerous climate change on the African continent, and to impacts on states.

It’s understandable that the IMO’s technically detailed and expensive-to-attend meetings are not an attractive proposition for governments with limited resources. More effort needs to be made by those already active in those discussions to engage, consult and attempt to empathize, if we are to make sure that Africa’s opportunities are taken, and risks avoided.  

* Update, May 19, 2017: This article has been updated to clarify that only seven of 15 countries spoke at the IMO’s GHG debate in October 2016.

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About the author

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Tristan Smith

Dr. Tristan Smith is a Reader at the UCL Energy Institute and is the director of the Research Councils UK-funded project Shipping in Changing Climates.


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