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Good Green News
Robot Crews Could Make Shipping Greener

The international approach to mitigating climate change produced a very nationally-focused agreement in Paris last December, requiring UN member states to craft and submit plans for how they’ll reduce emissions in the coming years. This patchwork approach of aggregated national strategies was about as much as could have been hoped for (and given the fact that no mechanisms exist for punishing nations for not emitting, this really wasn’t much of an accomplishment), but it failed to address some important drivers of global emissions. International shipping is a notable example of one such exempted industry, and as Reuters reports, its total emissions are quite large, and growing:

Shipping now makes up around 2.2 percent of world emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming, and that share is forecast to rise dramatically if nothing is done to slow it. The International Maritime Organization, the U.N. agency responsible for regulating pollution from ships, forecasts CO2 emissions from vessels rising anywhere between 50 percent and 250 percent by 2050 in its “business as usual” case, as economies grow and trade increases.

Given how difficult it was to hammer out a watered-down deal simply asking national governments to try and reduce emissions, it’s hard to envision how greens will be able to convince the shipping industry to constrain itself—and therefore the global economy—and reduce emissions. But what a top-down treaty approach couldn’t do, a technological fix just might. As Climate Home reports, engineers are designing crewless ships:

Finnish researchers are working with industry on sensors and remote control systems expected to revolutionise seaborne trade. No crew means no need for accommodation, water and sewage treatment systems, heating or air conditioning.

Rolls Royce, which has been developing the technology, estimates this could slash 10-15% off fuel use and therefore greenhouse gas emissions. “The primary benefits of remote and autonomous vessels will be improved efficiency and safety,” innovation VP Oskar Levander told Climate Home. “Obviously anything that makes ships more efficient in terms of energy consumption also has the potential to reduce emissions.”

Automation and smarter systems have already wrought extraordinary efficiency (and therefore economic and environmental) gains for manufacturing, and stand to do the same thing with automotive transportation with the impending possibilities of the driverless car. With crewless boats, these same benefits could be enjoyed by the global shipping industry.

This looks like yet another one of those odd eco-friendly benefits of the information economy. The ability to manipulate data over great distances could allow us to accomplish one of the most basic and most important functions of global trade—schlepping stuff from place to place—more efficiently and with fewer emissions. File this under “good green news.”

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  • Andrew Allison

    The remote and autonomous vessel technology is obviously a good thing, but the International Maritime Organization forecast stains credulity. At a guess, it’s based on container volume estimates. The triple E container ships which began entering service in 2013 carry close to six times the cargo of the Panamax vessels introduced in 1980. Since bunkering cost per container decline by about 30% for each doubling in capacity, container fleet CO2 emissions will likely decline as these behemoths replace smaller vessels.

  • Fat_Man

    Most seamen are from poor countries. How depriving them of their jobs will make the world greener is far beyond me.

    • Jim__L

      I wonder if they’ll enjoy their new jobs as pirates?

  • CaliforniaStark

    This type of technology may work in short trips between relatively close ports, but not for long trips across oceans.

    Self-driving cars are now having problems driving on streets with faded traffic lanes, or that are in poor condition. As one researcher stated: “if the lane fades, all h— breaks out.” The self-driving car will often just stop working. You don’t have that option on a large commercial ship or oil tanker in the middle of the ocean. A large freighter or oil tanker, unable to steer, being slammed around in high seas risks a loss in the tens of millions of dollar range. The only way to prevent this is to have enough crew on board who can repair any malfunction, and steer the vessel manually if necessary — which removes the claimed greenhouse gas reduction. Existing auto-piloted and computer controlled boats have crew members on watch, who often need to re-calibrate the auto-pilot, and correct the computer settings.

    Then, of course there are issues of potential piracy, hacking of the computer system (ships start heading to a mystery port), etc.
    Perhaps a better approach to removing greenhouse gases from shipping would be to shift to less carbon intense fuels, like natural gas, and to make ship engines more efficient so they use less diesel or other fuel. Adding solar and wind turbines might provide a significant part of the energy use necessary for the crew.

    • grinlap

      Yes, this will be so beneficial to pirates that I hear they’ve already hired lobbists to make sure this is implemented pronto.

      • CaliforniaStark

        Here is a link to a You Tube video of a ship in stormy seas. The wave at 4.25 is chilling. Am skeptical a computer could be programmed to respond properly to these type of seas, with waves coming from several angles. If the computer/ autopilot malfunctions; the ship is in trouble.

    • f1b0nacc1

      I am usually quite optimistic about automation and robotics, but this is an area that I find myself unable to share the optimism. Your skepticism is well founded (as is that of the commenter below who points out that this would be a boon to pirates), as is your excellent observation that a simpler way to handle this would be alternative fuels (for non-time sensitive cargos, perhaps even sailing vessels) and more efficient designs. Finally, Andrew’s comment above about economies of scale in ship size really makes the point best….

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