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.”